This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional. Zarcopharma and Cerynitis are fictional companies and are not meant to portray any real pharmaceutical company. All the characters are imaginary.
Love of justice in most men is no more than the fear of suffering injustice.
Duc de la Rochefoucauld
If a person has less than a week to live, say just over six days, it would seem apt that there should be some augury or omen to presage that event. Even if the portent was recognized only later for what it was, it would be somehow reassuring, almost as though the passing of a life was somehow within God’s plan rather than a random, chance occurrence brought on by a fellow mortal. But after Breidel had gone, no one could remember noticing anything that foretold his demise.
To most people in the United States it was merely another in the series of Fridays, nineteen of which had thus far preceded it that year. On the East Coast, where thunderheads hovered in the humid air, most folk were turning their attention to dinner. In the Pacific Time Zone two hours remained before the warm, dry breezes would usher in the weekend. At this precise moment, three people, thousands of miles apart, were thinking of Keith Breidel, and if the events that were to happen over the following months could be said to have a common beginning, this time would have to be their inception. If any of the three had made a different decision than they did, a man now dead might yet be alive.
A foretoken would establish that their actions were predestined. But there was none.
Jim Spizziri pulled up the bandana that hung loosely around his neck and wiped the sweat off his face, then, unclipping the waist-strap, swung the backpack off his shoulders. The small, flat area was big enough for his tent, and the Tonto Creek, tumbling into a small pool not thirty feet away would provide him with both drinking water and a chance to wash the Arizona dust off his body. He should have been burning up the asphalt toward Savannah where Keith lived, he knew, but he needed some solitude to think about what he planned to do. There had been a time in his life when consequences never entered his mind, a time when he would have thoughtlessly winged it, but two stints in the Marines and, more recently, a deployment to Iraq had changed him. Now he was equipped with new skills and, most importantly, discipline. His moves would require careful planning if he were to have any chance of succeeding.
Almost two hundred feet above the Savannah River, with the setting sun blazing through the support cables throwing their black shadows diagonally across the road, Edward Hillman followed the sluggish traffic across the Talmadge Bridge as he headed for his home in South Carolina. He leaned across and turned the talk radio show off leaving his brain free of distraction to think about Keith Breidel. Dr. goddam Breidel. Not much else had occupied his mind since he had heard that the man was to become the new Scientific Director at Zarcopharma. His father, the one who had imparted the news, had passed no other comment on the appointment, but Edward knew that the Old Man had coveted the position for himself, and as the two had eaten their lunch in the company cafeteria, Edward had noticed that the face that had, in his youth, seemed so commanding, so authoritative, so knowledgeable, now appeared dispirited and a little bewildered. Over twenty-five years of his life his father had given to Zarco. He had been with them almost from the get-go, helping them build up the laboratories from scratch in the 70s, supervising the production of the initial lines of drugs, working long hours until the company could afford to hire more researchers. Twenty-five years, and what had he got for it? Not even a dinner with the brass. A cake in the boardroom, a short speech from the chairman that was so bland that it did not even warrant some of the other staff members present looking up from their Blackberries. No presentation, just an email with a URL that linked him to a website where he could choose his anniversary gift. Edward’s mother had thought he should choose the clock, but his father had decided on some golf clubs. Edward wondered whether he had thought his old ones too shabby to be caddied around with the other executives when he became Scientific Director as had seemed his destiny. And now he had been passed over. And, to add insult to injury, passed over for that kid, Keith Breidel. Breidel at 37 had fairly rocketed up the promotion ladder since coming to Zarco. Breidel with his diffidence and little-town ways, his clean-shaven face and brushy haircut that made him look 25. But behind the façade he was something else altogether. He was a shrewd adversary, carefully studying every move he made. But this time he would not succeed. The Old Man’s disappointment would be short lived. He, Edward, would make sure of that. He knew Keith Breidel, the two had sparred before and Breidel had come out second. Now it was time to go in for the kill.
Josh Kelzer stood at the window of his second-floor office and watched Keith Breidel walk down the flagstoned terrace to the parking lot. "My God, do you know how hot you are?" Josh muttered to himself as his idol, tie pulled down and shirt top buttons open, tantalizingly framing the tanned chest, slid into the cream Mitsubishi Spyder convertible and retracted the top. With his hormones running amok, Josh watched, unmoving, as the car peeled out of the parking lot and, with a burst of acceleration, disappeared up the street into the Savannah evening. With a sigh he returned to his desk and sat down in front of his computer. It was hopeless, he reflected. Keith barely knew Josh existed outside the walls of Zarcopharma. "Maybe things would go more smoothly if you came out," the voice of his annoyingly-always-right alter ego whispered. "Maybe he doesn’t even know you’re gay." Yeah, he probably didn’t. But coming out was easier said than done. Several times in his life he had set deadlines for declaring his independence: when he would get to college; when he would complete his first year; when he would graduate; once he had his own apartment. But each target had come and gone with Josh remaining crouched in the closet, having only occasional one night stands with guys and desultory dates with girls. Until recently Josh had never spoken to Keith, hardly noticed him in fact since the computer folk had few opportunities to mingle with the researchers. But about a month before, Dr. Breidel had diffidently entered Josh’s office with a computer problem and, in his polite manner, had wondered whether Josh could help him. Within two minutes of checking the symptoms, Josh was pretty sure he had the problem nailed, but he felt a strange attraction to this man, the white shirt with its crisp creases, the muted scent of deodorant, aftershave and the hair-gel which held the dark blond mane in carefully arranged disorder beguiled him, and he stretched out the diagnostic process to fifteen minutes to enjoy the company — ersatz though it was. Only as Breidel, Keith as he had insisted Josh call him, had shaken Josh’s hand before leaving, had the computer tech noticed the tie. What at first he had taken to be small dots on the dark blue background, he now saw were the small equals signs of the HRC. Could it be? Could the man, this paragon, be, like Josh himself, gay? Too bewildered to speak, he had watched Breidel, his fixed PC in hand, walk out the door. From that day Josh had engineered a few meetings at lunch times in the cafeteria, yet the two had proved to be so painfully shy when out of their professional environments, that the meals had been devoured in a gallimaufry of the mundane, neither crossing the line to what was most important in their lives. Josh looked unseeingly at the computer screen, waiting for his alter ego to once again taunt him, yet now, almost as annoyingly, it remained silent. "OK!" Josh responded to the unspoken question. "One week." He picked up a red marker and crossed to the Sierra Club calendar that hung on his wall. "By next Friday I will have asked Keith to go out with me." And with that he drew a circle around the number 27.
Living with Chris is pretty much the same as riding with him on his motorcycle. There are long stretches of quiet, serene travel, with me nestled gently and contentedly against his leather-clad back. Suddenly, and without warning, his left foot does a rapid down-shift, his right hand snaps the throttle open, changing the engine note to a howl, the speedometer needle arcs toward the triple digit zone, and my mind, numbed with fright, tries to disregard the fact that we are on the wrong side of the road facing oncoming traffic. Just when the adrenaline has knotted the muscles in my feet and hands, and pulled my blood protectively into the center of my abdomen, we are past the slower moving car, and with a quick right-left lean of his body, Chris has tucked the bike neatly back into our lane, rolled off the throttle, and delivered a quick slap to my leg as though to say, ‘Why were you worried? Don’t you trust me?’
And as I said, living with him tends to follow this pattern, too.
I had been out of town for a week. The previous Friday I had boarded a northbound Delta jet by myself, and headed back to the University of Chicago, my Alma Mater, for what promised to be a convivial get together of a select few: the people with whom I had spent countless late night hours studying, and innumerable daylight hours in class arguing cases. On the Tuesday morning following, with a vicious hangover, I had headed East from the Windy City to New York for the first of a series of meetings with the legal department of one of the big corporations who wanted to open up a distribution center in Savannah.
Originally Chris had planned to come up to Chicago with me for the long weekend, but we had eventually realized that my schedule would not give us all that much time together, and there were some chores that Chris wanted to work on around the house — some shutters damaged over the winter, some boards split on the walkway from deck to beach. The normal annual repair work.
The week passed as work days do, and the following Friday afternoon I was in another Delta jet, contemplating my imminent death as the left wing dropped closer and closer to the vertical above the I-95 / I-16 interchange while the airplane’s nose traversed the horizon to line up with the distant runway. I gripped the armrest with bloodless knuckles, wondering as I did so whether the turn was the result of a brash pilot who had little regard for his own life, or whether the plane was under the control of some of Chris’s software. A turn that forced one’s butt deep into the seat cushion was just the kind of thing my lover would think exciting, I reflected, ruefully wondering how much of my body would remain for him to bury.
Yet the Fates smiled on us, and a short while later I was striding up the jetway, the sweat having dried off my forehead, and my heart rate dropping below the hundred beats per minute level. Stepping from the warm tunnel into the air-conditioned cool of the terminal, I spotted Chris standing a few feet beyond the check-in desk, his black jeans clinging to his legs, a rust-red short-sleeve shirt hanging open over a long-sleeve yellow T. He had got himself a new haircut while I had been away. Gone was the faux hawk that he had sported for a month, and now the brown hair was spiky with a flare above his brow. He pushed himself away from the wall where he had been leaning and sauntered towards me, grinning. "You can walk as casually as you like," he said as he came up to me, "but I know that ten minutes ago you were wetting yourself and shaking when the guy pulled that hard bank onto final."
"How’d you know he did that?" I asked incredulously as I put my arm around him. "Was that your software?"
"Naah. I was watching from the parking lot, and that was an all-American pilot letting the barnstorming genes in his blood have a little fun," the dork answered with a smile.
"Nice hair style, by the way," I said.
"Uh, thanks." He gave me a shy grin and ran his fingers lightly across his scalp. He put his hands on my shoulders. "I like what I see, too," he said, and pulling me towards him, planted his lips firmly on mine.
The afternoon was sunny and warm, and Chris steered his Jeep deftly amongst the eighteen-wheelers headed down to Florida as I recounted the details of my trip. By the time I had run out of stuff to tell him, we were already off the highway and headed for the bridge that would take us onto Kirkhall Island. As we drove between the high girders above the choppy waters I paused and asked him how his week had been. He rattled off some generalities of his job, but otherwise implied that the week had been nothing more than same-old-same-old. I had braced myself for a saga of computer-related anecdotes and a byte-by-byte tour of his latest debugging effort, but this unusually brief and non-committal answer surprised me, and I got the sense that something had happened that he was not quite ready to discuss.
"C’mon. There had to have been something at least a tad unusual in your life," I chided.
"Nope, not really. Just worked on some code problems," he replied looking straight ahead, the sea breezes spilling over the windshild ruffling the blond tips of his hair.
"Your company isn’t getting bought out, is it?" I asked, knowing that that was one of Chris’s fears.
"Not that I know of."
"So what did you do last weekend? You said you’d gone into Savannah."
"Yeah. I rode up on Saturday. Ran into the old Mrs. Seaburn and her grandson down by the river and had lunch with them."
Had I imagined it, or had there been the briefest of hiatuses after the word Saturday? Was he picking and choosing what he wanted to say?
"How is the old bird?"
"As sharp as ever. Not much goes on that she doesn’t have an opinion on — including the way I dress," he gave a short laugh.
"What’s her grandson up to these days?"
"He works with computers somewhere in town."
"’S he cute?"
"He’s got a girlfriend."
I knew my partner. "But he got your hormones running, I bet!"
"For fuck sake, Mike, what is this? The Spanish Inquisition?" Chris burst out. "Am I asking you if you took your Law School friends to bed?"
Wow! Obviously I’d hit a nerve, I reflected, relapsing into silence while pondering what was going on.
‘Well at least the house hasn’t burned down,’ I thought as we turned onto the road that led up to it. We drove the last quarter mile in silence. Chris cut the motor and pulled on the handbrake, while I unbuckled my seat belt and began to swivel my butt around to swing my legs out, but he reached out and grabbed my shoulder.
"Yeah," I said turning toward him. An anxious muscle in his jaw caused his cheek to pulse.
"I’m sorry I snapped at you."
"That’s OK. What’s going on?"
He hesitated and looked at the dashboard for a second or two. "You know what we agreed on?" He asked, looking up at me. "The no secrets thing?"
"Uh-huh." I replied, not sure where this was going. Had my guy got himself a lay with a cute hetero while I was away? There is a commonly held belief that God makes no mistakes. But, if so, how did Chris get loaded up with twice the maximum number of hormones specified in the Divine Construction Manual for Humans/Male/Gay?
"I got involved in a computer problem over the weekend," it came out quickly, and he paused to explain, "It was Mrs. Seaburn’s grandson who had the problem."
Oh yeah, Chris had found himself a cute boy. "I leave you alone for a bare week," I laughed, but he raised his hands gently to stop me.
"I figured out what his computer problem was. I found the data he had lost," he paused and looked at the gear shift. "But I found out more and then one thing led to another, and I ended up doing something that is very definitely illegal."
"Oh, God, Chris. You didn’t kill someone did you?" I asked, my chest tightening in alarm.
His face lost its seriousness briefly and he laughed. "No, Mike. Not that bad."
"So what did you do?" I asked as my chest relaxed a little.
"Mike, that’s what I’m trying to get across I cannot tell you what I did." There was the briefest of pauses. "But I didn’t two-time you. It’s just if I told you all that happened you would have to turn me in."
"Not necessarily. I’m your attorney."
"No, Mike, I know this. If I were to tell you what I know and what I did, you would have to say something, to the police or to another lawyer, and then my ass would be grass. And a couple of other guys, too, who were just looking after their own asses, too." His eyes held mine, steady and unflinching. He was not afraid.
I reflected on what he had told me, and said, "Chris, the police are extremely thorough. This is not some speeding fine you’re trying not to pay. If you’ve got yourself involved in some kind of crime, they will figure it out eventually," I spoke, trying to keep my personal anxieties in check with the measured tones of advice. Very sound advice.
"That’s a chance I guess I have to take then," he answered, with more determination than casualness. "’K. Let’s go inside."
Holy cow! He really believed I would drop this. And, my mind noted, there had been no denial of the ‘crime’ aspect. "Chris," I said jumping down from the Jeep and moving to the back where he was already pulling my suitcase from behind the rear seat. "Chris, you need to tell me more, buddy. I need to know what you have done."
"No you don’t," he said with a smile as he handed my PC bag to me. "Trust me, Mike, you do not want to know."
Putting aside years of honing my rhetorical skills, and forgetting that hounding Chris did little but make him more obstinate, I persisted. Taking hold of his shoulder, I pulled him around to face me. "Have you ever been in a jail? Have you any fuckin’ idea what it is like? What you see on TV, the fingerprinting and photographing is nothing. Everything you have is taken from you: wallet, money, your necklace, even your handkerchief or tissues. Think you can understand what a body search is like? Having your balls lifted up, your ass pulled apart to make sure you have nothing hidden there? Do you know what a jail smells like? What the noise level is like? What it’s like to have some ass-hole who has little education and even less training, constantly yelling at you, telling you what to do?
"I don’t know what you’ve done, but you need to know what is ahead for you. You think you are smart. It doesn’t matter. The police have time on their side. Sooner or later, just by whittling away, they will figure out what has happened and who did it."
I had expected a strong reaction to this and I braced as his hand moved toward me, but Chris merely smiled. His hand rubbed against my jaw. "You’re sweet. You really care, don’t you? Don’t worry — I’ll be fine, Mike. Don’t sweat this one." And with that he pulled the handle on my roller-board up and, towing it behind him, walked to the door.
Dinner and the rest of the evening passed in an uneasy truce, the conversation becoming stilted as we stepped clear of any discussion of the past seven days. The unknown is so often more frightening than the truth, and my anxiety grew as I conjured up ever more dire predicaments for Chris to have got himself into. Eventually, with dampened mood I declared I was going upstairs. We cleaned our teeth in silence, Chris turned out the light, opened the blinds and followed me into bed. He rolled onto his side, and I felt his arm come over me tweaking my nip as he nuzzled his mouth into my neck and his loin pushed against me.
It had been a long week, my brain was frazzled and conscious thought was shutting down. My patience snapped. "You really think you want to make love to someone you can’t trust?" Now that, without doubt, has to go down as the dumbest thing I have ever said, and, even as I heard the words coming out of my mouth, I was muttering a silent ‘Oh Shit!’
I felt the bed jolt as Chris drew in his legs and, before I could comprehend what was happening, he was astride my abdomen, leaning forward, his hands pinning my arms to the sheet.
"Who the fuck do you think you are?" he demanded.
"Chris " I started.
"I did not have to tell you anything about what I did this week. I could have just kept my mouth shut and none of this crap would be happening. But I thought I owed you some kind of explanation. Shit, did that idea ever backfire — I never thought you’d go so fucking overboard." He shoved my arms against the mattress. "And don’t you ever use sex as a weapon against me. Ever. If you’re too tired to fuck, that’s fine. Just say so. But our sex is not something we give as a reward or hold back in punishment. We do not use it to manipulate each other."
His face was black in silhouette, but against the backdrop of the night sky through the window, I saw his shoulders heaving up and down as he gulped in air. "Chris, I’m sorry. That wasn’t what I meant to say."
He said nothing. His hands gripped my arms just above the elbows with a strength I had not realized he possessed.
"No," I finally had to admit when the silence had stretched on, "I did mean it." I swallowed, smarting from his accusation. "But, Chris, I wasn’t trying to bargain with sex. Honest. Yes, I know it was a real stupid thing to say, though. What I was wanting to say was that I’m scared for you and I should have said I’m hurting that you won’t let me help you."
He released my arms and sat back, his weight supported on his haunches on either side of my pelvis. "Mike," he said with a patient sigh, "it’s not that I won’t let you help me. Telling you is going to either get you chucked out of your profession if you don’t tell anyone, or me thrown in jail if you do. All I’m doing, in the only way I know how, is taking the fifth, Mike." Even without being able to see, I knew his eyes would be earnest and desperately asking for my understanding. "Mike, I’m not dumb. I know I’ve broken some goddam law. I know if I get caught the shit will really hit the fan. But what I’ve done isn’t some sordid thing that I’m trying to hide." He drew a finger across my chest. "Mike, you would be proud of me if you knew." There was a silence. "Mike, you have to trust me. What I did just had to be done. There was no other way."
"Chris, I do trust you." It wasn’t what I wanted to say. I wanted to tell him, ‘I’m panicking, Chris. I feel friggin’ terrified about what can happen to you, and I feel like I’m the only person who can help you, but you won’t reach up and grab my hand.’ But uttering those words would just have started the whole fight over again. Mulling over what he had said, I flexed my arms. I remember, somewhere in the back of my mind, being slightly surprised I could still move them after his grip. I took a deep breath. "OK. We do it your way."
His hands massaged my chest for a long while. "Cool," he said softly at last.
We stayed like that for a full minute, each trying to come to terms with what had just happened. At last I broke the silence. "It’s good to be back home. I missed you."
Chris reached behind him. "I can tell."
The weekend was spent working around the house, and by the time Sunday night came around, we were only too pleased to get a chance to sit down and enjoy our dinner. The sun and the fresh air had taken their toll on us, and we munched through the scallops and salad in silence, enjoying the dark, star-studded sky, and the phosphorescent waves that flopped languidly on the beach at the turn of the tide. Eventually Chris lifted his glass to me and said, "Thanks!"
"Keeping your mouth shut. I know I was supposed to do all this stuff while you were up North, but instead I did other things." He accented the last two words very slightly.
I smiled at him. "Any time." I said, raising my glass. If keeping that topic off the table was so important to Chris, I guessed I could live with it.
For the next day or two Chris and the trouble that possibly hung over him gnawed at me, but, as day followed day without a SWAT team surrounding the house or the press reporting a manhunt for a homicidal geek, I began to consider that Chris might be being just a tad melodramatic. And as the mundane, day-to-day problems arose demanding to be dealt with, the issue receded from my thoughts and life took up its normal pace again.
Two months passed. It was another Friday, and I was leaving a conference room in our Savannah office when I came face to face with Hugh in the corridor, his suit jacket slung over one shoulder as though he had come in from outside. "Hey, Hugh! Long time no see. How’re things going?"
I liked Hugh Pease. He had been hired about a month after Assmussen and Watkins had brought me on board, and thus had freed me from being the junior in the firm. He was a smart, outgoing guy with a great sense of humor, and we had become friends and allies, tacitly determined to prove to the partners that the New Blood was a valuable and indispensable asset to the legal team.
"Not so great," he said. He gave a wan smile and shrugged. "My client had copped a plea with the DA for a six year sentence, but the judge was having a bad day and made it eight." He lifted his hands, "Still," he said philosophically, "had the guy gone in front of a jury he’d have got three times that." His tone changed and he placed his hand on my shoulder. "So, how’s Brunswick treating you? From what I hear you’re bringing in a ton of business."
"Yup. It’s pretty good so far. Sure keeps me busy. Hey, have you had lunch?" He shook his head. "Let’s go grab a bite. You got the time?"
"Sure." He grinned at me, "Especially if you’re paying."
"So what’s up with this client?" I asked as I unwrapped the cutlery from its paper napkin cocoon.
He grimaced. "It’s Edward Hillman. You know, Teddy Hillman in the Breidel murder case." When the name elicited no reaction from me, he asked, "You don’t know about the case?"
"Not really. I kinda only half listen to the stuff on the morning conference calls. I’ve got enough on my plate down in Brunswick." As I said the words, something clicked in my mind. "Oh, hang on. Is that where some guy up here got poisoned?"
"Uh-huh," Hugh nodded. Hillman was the guy accused of administering the poison."
"Did he do it?"
Hugh considered his answer. "You know, I really don’t know. And I just don’t care." He stopped for a few seconds. "At the start I didn’t think he had. He said he didn’t, and he seemed so earnest that I believed him. The dead guy had left a suicide note." Hugh paused again, briefly before going on, "But then things started to slide. The note turned out to be phony. It mentioned stuff the dead guy wasn’t involved in. Stuff that he would have known was wrong, but someone not closely associated with him wouldn’t have. Then, when I started to get a good look at the evidence the DA had, it seemed that my client had indeed been out to the victim’s house, even though he had said he hadn’t. When I challenged him on this one, he admitted he had lied about not going out to the house, but seemed pretty adamant that the rest of the evidence the DA had wouldn’t hold up."
"But it did?" I ventured. I knew Hugh: if the evidence had been the slightest bit shaky, he would have nailed it.
"I thought at first I could get by it at trial, but as discovery proceeded, new things surfaced, piece by piece, each maybe not damning in itself, but adding to the wall of evidence until it looked as though the whole thing was pretty solid.
"Thank you," I said to the waiter as he placed a bowl of cheese tortellini in front of me.
"So you advised the plea bargain," I asked Hugh once the parmesan had been grated.
"We wouldn’t have stood a chance in front of a jury. The evidence was just too strong. And Hillman was just too flaky to put on the stand."
"Yeah. Like he was trying to play some loosy-goosy game in the background with his defense without trusting me. If I’d put him on the stand I wouldn’t have known what kind of a stunt he was going to pull."
"Oh, one of those!"
"Yeah. As I told you, when I first met him, he said that he had nothing to do with it. He said he hardly knew Breidel, and didn’t even know where he lived." He took a mouthful of food and chewed it for a few seconds. "Well, then the police found someone at the company who said that Hillman had gone out to Breidel’s house at some time a year or more ago to fix a PC problem for him. That sunk that claim.
"A few days later, the DA handed over more evidence, and one piece pointed to Hillman having been in the house more recently. I confronted him with that, and he claimed he had gone out to Breidel’s house, but that was on the Thursday night — the night before the murder — and, again, the reason he gave was that he’d gone out to fix Breidel’s computer. I might’ve bought that, but his explanation for the other evidence was that he was being framed. He almost began to rant, saying that people in the company had it in for his family. That the executives had passed over his father for some promotion in favor of Breidel, and now when Breidel had died, they were trying to pin a murder on him."
"Did you point out that he was painting a plausible motive for either him or his father having killed Breidel?" I asked.
"Uh-huh. He back-pedaled on that tack pretty smartly.
"I think that’s when it really began to sink in that he wasn’t leveling with me. I decided to press him on Breidel, and it wouldn’t have taken a psychiatrist to figure out that Hillman had some grudge against the guy. Breidel was one of the — probably the top — research chemists at Zarcopharma, most everyone admired him. Everyone except Hillman.
"He seemed to think that the guy wasn’t as good as everyone made him out to be and, again, that he was leap-frogging his old man for a top promotion.
"The biggest problem I had was that he had no friggin’ alibi for the Friday night — the night of the murder. He lived by himself in an apartment near where his parents lived. But they hadn’t seen him that night. He said he went to a movie, but I couldn’t find anyone who had seen him there and he didn’t even have the ticket stub — said he’d thrown it away."
"Which was probably just what he did do," I pointed out.
"Yeah, I know. But you know how juries can be. They watch CSI and Law and Order and believe that everyone keeps these things tucked in a pocket. And with the evidence the DA had that he had been in the dead guy’s house, the movie ticket evidence looked weak to the point of being sinister."
"So you advised him to take a plea?"
"Not right off. Something in me made me still believe him, but I didn’t suggest a plea mainly because the DA hadn’t offered one. About three weeks after they came through with one for involuntary manslaughter, unlawful act. Six years."
I considered it. "Not too bad if he’s guilty," I conceded. If he’d gone to trial he’d probably have got fifteen to twenty-five." I bounced some thoughts around in my mind. "What did the other side say the motive for the killing was?"
"They claim that Hillman was stealing data related to some drug research that Zarco was doing and selling it. They say Breidel had found out about them and was going to blow the whistle."
I considered what he had said. It sure sounded like a good motive to me. Hugh continued, "But Hillman maintained it wasn’t true. He said that there was no way he could have accessed the computer files without there being a trace and a security exception alert being set off."
"Was that true?"
"I think so. That was something I had planned to drill into in cross examination. Zarco wasn’t really cooperating with me before the trial."
"What about the selling secrets?"
My companion grimaced and rubbed his neck. "That could to have been true. The selling of them, that is. There is definitely an investigation going on in that area. But the link with Hillman is tenuous. He doesn’t have easy access to those files and, although he lives at the very upper end of his means, his bank account is clean. So where is the money?"
"Couldn’t someone else have been selling the secrets and been the one that offed Breidel?"
"Yeah," Hugh stretched the word out. "The problem is, not all that many people had access to the data. Breidel did since it was his project, and a couple of other people on his team, but when the investigators looked at their bank accounts and life styles, it would have been hard to build a case against any of them."
"What did Hillman think about the plea offer when you told him?"
"The day I told him he didn’t want to take it. Wouldn’t hear of it, in fact. He sat across my desk from me and said there was no way they could find evidence of any wrongdoing on his part.
"Then," he said after taking a few mouthfuls of his food, "two days later, Zarcopharma reported Hillman’s computer had been stolen from his office. They had the tag of the van the thief drove on their security cameras, and they traced it to a rental company. That led the cops to the driver, and the Zarco receptionist identified him as the one who had come by the office. He’d told her he’d been called to collect a broken PC. A bit of pressure on him by the cops, a hint of jail time, elicited the information that the man was a friend of Hillman’s, and Hillman had asked him to get his desktop computer."
"What? Why did he do that?"
"Who knows what goes on in that guy’s mind? He said that he was afraid that ‘someone else’," Hugh used his fingers to place quotation marks around the words, "would plant files on it to frame him. Zarcopharma didn’t press charges. I had Hillman come up to my office, and I told him in no uncertain terms that another trick like that and I would request to be removed from the case. That sobered him up," he grinned at me.
"But there’s something more. After he’d left, Fred Jackson came into my office. ‘Was that a client of yours?’ he asked, and when I said it was, he said that he’d seen him that very lunchtime sitting with another lawyer in that little eating place down on West State, around from the courthouse."
"I know the place," I said. The food wasn’t bad, but I was surprised that Fred had been there. Fred is a senior partner in the firm and rarely eats anywhere where the price of an entrée is less than $30. "Did Fred know who the other lawyer was?"
"Yeah. This guy had been present at some discovery that Fred was at."
"Did you ask Hillman what he was doing?"
"Yeah. I called him up right away. Asked him if he was considering changing counsel. He said no. Said it was a guy from the firm that represented Zarcopharma and he had come to talk to him about his medical coverage, insurance and all that stuff while he was on vacation." Hugh must have noticed my quizzical look, for he added, "Since he’d been arrested Zarcopharma had put him on paid vacation."
"Hmm." I mused. "That lawyer was skating on pretty thin ethical ice, I’d say. I would have had you present to make sure everything was on the up-and-up."
"I made that abundantly clear to him. I called him up and set him straight."
"With all the dignity of your seniority," I kidded him.
"Don’t mock, it paid off. A couple of days later I got a visit from John Ethridge."
"Not THE John Ethridge?"
"Yup. John Ethridge Esquire, the Ethridge in Ethridge, Hamilton, Stourbridge and Fraley."
"He trying to recruit you?" I joked. Ethridge’s firm was one of the premier law companies in Savannah, even in Georgia, going back in their families for several generations, and they handled some very high-profile company accounts.
"No. Way stranger than that, even. He came to me to apologize for this guy. Apparently he’s a new-hire rookie in their firm and had made a goof."
"Not a good start in a firm like that," I mused.
"Ethridge was very humble. He told me that this newbie, whose name is Allan Lyman by the way, had thought, since his business with Hillman had nothing to do with the case, he didn’t need to have me present."
He explained that the company Hillman worked for didn’t want him to be fretting over anything other than his trial; they felt he’d been a loyal employee, and now they should stand by him as far as they could. The new guy in the firm was anxious to prove himself, and ran off to pass on the good news. Ethridge showed me all the papers that their rookie had got Hillman to sign, provided me with notarized copies, and even offered to have them nullified and re-presented if I didn’t like the contents."
"So what’d you do?"
Hugh gave a little sigh. "The papers were benign. Normal medical and insurance coverage stuff. So I made a couple of mildly pointed remarks to him about their control of their staff, but otherwise I accepted his apology. Apparently the new guy is being shifted to some remote spot for a while to contemplate his future." He chuckled. Being the new kid in a law firm can be terrifying. "He went to Duke, so maybe he’s a tad full of his own importance and needed taking down a bit."
He gave me a conspiratorial smile and I laughed. As long as he wasn’t aiming at the University of Chicago I’d go along.
"Anyway," Hugh said, "that night Hillman called me at home and told me to go ahead and accept the DAs offer."
"Why the change of heart?"
"No idea. He wouldn’t say. Just said he wanted to get it all over and done with."
"And you think it had something to do with him getting caught trying to steal his computer?"
Hugh shook his head. "No. I doubt it. That was just dumb. As I’d told him, the police had made a copy of his work computer, with Zarcopharma’s permission, after they charged him. It didn’t matter if anyone added files — or deleted them for that matter — we had a copy of it.
"Man, it was like being on a roller coaster ride. On one hand, I thought the offer from the DA was more than fair." He looked up with his fork halfway to his mouth. "I’ll be frank with you: at the time I thought it was manna from heaven. But there was one more peculiarity. When he was leaving my office after I’d been beating him up about the computer stealing thing, as he was leaving, halfway to the door, Mike, he turns to me with this real strange look on his face, and says, ‘My granddaddy always used to tell me, "When you chop down a tree be careful it don’t fall on you." I forgot that.’ And then he walked out without saying anything else.
"At the time I thought he was talking about the guy getting caught red handed stealing the computer, but the more I’ve thought about it since, the more I think he was talking about the whole case."
"So you got your deal, the client said ‘Let’s take it’, and then?"
"Well, I delayed a day before getting back to the DA. I thought maybe Hillman’d change his mind again. But he didn’t."
"So, you picked a guilty client. No big deal. He’d be up for fifteen, sixteen more years if it hadn’t been for you."
"You see, Mike, that’s it. That’s what has me wondering. He has never actually admitted in so many words that he was guilty. All he told me was to change the plea."
"That’s really splitting hairs."
"Well, when I was going through the plea with him, I was telling him the type of questions that they’d ask. I said that, for instance, they’d want to know how he slipped the drugs into Breidel’s wine, that sort of stuff. And he came right back and said, ‘I’d tell them I did it while he was getting something out the fridge."
He paused, waiting. And I saw it. "You sure? He said ‘I’d’ and not ‘I’ll’?"
"You are good. Yeah, it was ‘I’d’. I’m a hundred percent sure. The minute he said it, I knew."
"The subjunctive." I tapped my fork idly on my plate and mused out loud, "Now that is interesting. No matter how hard one tries, the subconscious always tells the truth. I wonder what he was trying to hide?"
"I have no idea. I honestly don’t. I think that’s what tipped me into advising him to take the plea. I knew he was hiding something and I had no idea what. I had no real defense, and with him acting up like that I couldn’t risk putting him on the stand and have the DA springing a trap."
"It’s a tough call," I agreed.
He shrugged. "It was probably for the best. A jury would probably have nailed him."
"Was the evidence strong?"
"They had Hillman’s fingerprints on the glass that had the poison in it. His and Breidel’s. A couple of his hairs were caught in the brush of the victim’s vacuum cleaner. There was some other stuff, too. A footprint, faint in the dust, but it matched his shoes. The other side seems to think they’ve got motive and opportunity."
"What was the poison?"
"Roofies. Big overdose."
"Roofies? Was the dead guy trying to get high, or was your client trying to get him into bed?"
"Dunno. Initially the paramedics went along with the suicide theory, it was a real big overdose and the victim was sitting in his chair, and there was the note. Then the forensics guys hit the place and noticed that the house looked as though it had been cleaned up. Not something that would-be suicides usually do.
"Who discovered the dead guy?"
"It was after the weekend. Breidel lived by himself. When he didn’t turn up at work the next week, and nobody could get him on the phone, a couple of guys from his work went over on their lunch hour and found him dead. Coroner estimated the death as having probably occurred the previous Friday some time."
"Hmm. And with no alibi for your client Looks kinda bad. And the DA surely would have made it look that way."
I changed tack. "Why did the police charge your client?"
"As I say, opportunity and motive."
"Any other fingerprints?"
"Nope. The place has been wiped."
"How about a girlfriend?"
"Hillman or Breidel?"
"Boyfriend." I gave a start. "Yeah, it came as a surprise to everyone at Zarcopharma, but it turns out that Breidel played in your league — although, apparently, he was very much in the closet. His work colleagues had assumed he was too involved with his work to have a social life. But he had a boyfriend on the QT. Guy in the Marines who has been deployed over in Iraq for quite a while, which was why he was never around in Savannah for Breidel’s colleagues to know about. This guy’d actually just finished his stint and had been discharged — must have kept his orientation quiet, because the discharge was honorable."
"Yeah. Go figure. Kill a dozen men and you get a medal. Love one and they throw you out."
"I know. It’s a crock."
"D’you check the boyfriend out?" I asked.
"Yeah. He gets the major share from Breidel’s will, so the cops contacted him. But he was in Phoenix that night: he was driving cross-country from San Diego to come back here."
"When was he discharged?"
"The Friday a week before."
I mulled this over for a second or two, "Naah, Hugh. That doesn’t ring true. He’s been away from the States for God knows how long, he gets discharged, and it takes him more than a week to get to his boyfriend? There’s something we don’t know going on there."
"You think so? I didn’t really know what to make of that. Not sure what goes on in the minds of " He caught himself.
"Of you people?"
"Sorry. I didn’t mean it like it sounds."
"No offence taken." I gave him a smile. "Just wanted to make you squirm."
He laughed. "You jerk!" Hugh was an OK guy — I was probably the only gay guy he really knew well. "Yeah, I thought it was strange," he went on, "but he seemed above board. He checked into a hotel in the Phoenix area on the Thursday afternoon. Saturday he met up with a Marine buddy of his who’d been through Quantico with him. He checked out on the Monday. The cops checked that out. Before that, it seems he had been hiking and camping in some wilderness area right after he was discharged." Hugh gave a wry smile. "You’d think after being stuck in Iraq he’d have had his fill of wilderness, wouldn’t you?"
"Uh-huh," I nodded. "Do you think Ethridge’s guy got to him?" I asked. "To your client, I mean. Seems a bit too coincidental that, just after his visit, he changes his plea."
"No," he replied quickly. "No, not at all. At least not in any underhand way. Maybe from that meeting Hillman began to realize that the trial wasn’t just about him. Maybe he saw what going to trial would mean to his parents. The publicity, the TV, the waiting. And, of course, the chance that he would be found guilty."
"And so he told you to accept the offer?"
I considered what he’d told me, and neither of us spoke for close on a minute.
"Y’know, given what you’ve told me, I think you did the right thing," I said at last. "We’re here to represent the client, to do our best for him, protect his interests, but it doesn’t require us to be his mother."
"I know. But still ," his voice lapsed into silence.
"Why was the plea bargain so lenient?" I asked. "That is the fly in the ointment to my mind. It’s as though the DA’s folk want to make it real enticing. Even the judge balked at it. So maybe their evidence wasn’t that good after all."
"Yeah. I’ve been wondering that, too. I spoke to Jackson about it, and he thinks it’s for two reasons. One, they have a huge backlog of cases that they’re getting bad press on. Folk sitting in jail without being brought to trial, that kind of stuff. Getting the deal will speed this one through the system and free up staff for other cases. Two, the DA is trying to be seen as running a financially tight ship. Looks good if he gets a win and it doesn’t set the taxpayers back the whole cost of a jury trial. And, face it, Hillman isn’t a big threat to society."
"OK." I thought about what he’d said. "Sounds reasonable. I guess."
The remainder of the lunch passed with little more of import being discussed, and twenty minutes later I was shaking Hugh’s hand and heading for my car.
His problem, however, remained hovering in the back of my mind for the following ninety minutes or so as I drove back down to Brunswick. So sudden a plea change without good reason seemed distinctly odd to me, especially if the man hadn’t discussed the pros and cons with his attorney. Doubly so if it came after a visit from another lawyer.
I was walking to my desk when I saw Don, the firm’s latest twenty-something addition, head to the break room. .
"Hey, Don," I asked, following him. "When you were at Duke, did you know a guy called," I paused, recalling the name Hugh had mentioned, "Something Lyman?"
"Yeah, sure. He was in my class. Why?"
I shrugged. "I dunno. Just wondered what kind of person he was."
I liked Don. Unconventional but hard working, he had a disarming straightforwardness that appealed to jury people. He and I had formed a strong rapport and we worked well together. He took the cup of coffee from under the machine, set it down and picked up a little tub of Half-and-Half. "Smart," he replied, concentrating on peeling back the foil cover. "Real smart guy. Aced everything he put his hand to."
"Did he have a good grasp of law? Legal ethics?"
"Mike, that guy could have passed the bar exam without opening a book." He poured some of the white liquid into his cup, before looking up at me. "That was how he always was, he would skim through law books like they were novels, and he’d remember everything he read." He tossed the little container into the tub. "Yeah, he’s honest. I’d trust him. No funny shyster stuff with him."
"OK. Thanks." Don was pretty adept himself, so if he considered Lyman to be better, the guy must be way above average.
"Sure thing, boss." I had taken only two steps when he added, "Just to set your expectations, when I knew him he was straight."
"When’s your review due?" I asked rhetorically as I walked into the corridor and I heard him laugh.
The afternoon was busy. I had had to go up to H Street to the court, so it was close on six when I was back at my desk, finally shutting down my PC for the evening. "Funny you should have been asking about Lyman," Don said. I turned and found him leaning nonchalantly against the door jamb, his tie down, collar unbuttoned. Don had a quick mind that could cut through the chaff and get to the core of an argument in seconds, and he could recall facts from obscure cases on demand, but we surely had not hired the man for his demeanor.
"Why d’you say that," I asked, realigning my thoughts having almost forgotten Hugh’s problem.
"I was chatting with another buddy of mine this afternoon. Apparently Allan’s going to live out in California for a while. Seems like his wife has got this beaucoup-de-bucks-grant to do some research at some big deal university out in Sacramento or somewhere — she’s getting her doctorate in bio-chemical engineering. It was a bit of a problem for the two of them, what with her getting this break yet Allan having landed this great job and all down here in Savannah. Then Ethridge, Hamilton and whoever came through for him: they got him a job with some big law firm out west. They’re paying his moving expenses, everything. I told you he was good."
"You reckon you could put in a good word to A & W to get me a job out in California?" he laughed.
"The partners wanted to send you out there," I said, hitching my computer bag onto my shoulder, "but I told them you’re too valuable for us to lose."
"Yeah, right. It was that remark I made about Allan being straight, wasn’t it?"
"Uh-huh. That sunk you, bud. We’re sending Brownlee out to California instead." Will Brownlee was a timid paralegal who worked in our Savannah office and who had risen about as far as he was ever likely to go. He would certainly be the last candidate on any transfer list.
Don gave a groan. "Oh man, that hurts! Well, I guess you’ll see me here in the morning, then."
"Sure. Have a good night. Try and keep out of trouble."
My mind was racing as I closed my door behind me and walked down the corridor. Far from putting their black sheep in a remote spot as Hugh had been told, Ethridge’s boy-wonder was actually doing very well for himself. A skeptic might even think of it as being rewarded. Curiouser and curiouser.
Flipping open my cell phone as I walked out the door, I called Hugh.
"Want to know what punishment you get at Ethridge and Hamilton for being ethically challenged?" I asked when he answered.
"What? Some hell-hole in Alabama where they haven’t heard about air conditioning or that the world is round, and all legal decisions are based on the Ten Commandments?"
"How about you get an all-expenses-paid move out to Sacramento and the partners call in a favor and get you a position with a top-notch legal firm in the city."
I heard Hugh give a low whistle. "Not bad."
"Still think your client’s change of mind had nothing to do with this boy’s visit?"
"I dunno. It’s hard to believe. Ethridge’s guys don’t usually skate on thin ice."
"Maybe if you’re handling an account for a place like Zarcopharma, you bend over a little now and then?"
"Well, I can hardly go and give my own client the third degree to find out if he’s lying about the visit."
I thought that one over. "No. I guess not."
He sighed. "No, Mike, I’ve been thinking about it: Hillman accepted the plea. If he thinks the deal is OK, it probably is a good move for him. The best I could have offered him is fifty-fifty on an acquittal."
I respected Hugh’s acumen, and if he was thinking of letting this one slide he was probably right. And though his client’s change of plea was an enticing conundrum for my mind, other events drove thoughts of it onto a back burner for the following four or five weeks. Firstly there was Ricardo. Assmussen and Watkins generally took on two or three interns from law schools during the end-of-year vacation, and one of them, Ricardo, was assigned to our office. The beginning of summer had brought on a spate of petty crimes that were just now coming to trial, which kept Don and me on the go. Fortunately Ricardo, was pretty sharp and a self-starter, so all we had to do was tell him what we needed and point him in the right direction and he would get things done. Unfortunately he was pretty sharp and a self-starter, so I needed to keep an eye on him to prevent him from letting the undertow of his enthusiasm pull him rapidly out of his depth. Secondly I found myself temporarily solo again as Chris’s company had sent him to England for four weeks to work on his airplane software with the ADS-B team at QinetiQ, which meant that all the day-to-day responsibility of shopping, making meals and the general household chores fell on me.
It was the day that Chris was due back. I had figured that since I would have to be going up to Savannah anyway to pick him up from the airport, I may as well go into the city office and get caught up with some of my admin work that was simply easier to do there. At the end of the afternoon, just as I was ready to leave with briefcase in hand and computer bag over shoulder, Hugh caught up with me.
"Mike, I think I’ve figured out what happened in that Hillman case," he said. "Can I run it by you or are you busy?"
"Hugh, I have to leave right now: I’m picking Chris up at the airport in half an hour."
"Oh, OK." He appeared crestfallen. "Maybe next week, then," he added hopefully.
"Man, I’m in court every day next week. How about the following one?"
"I guess " Again the look of dejection.
"Look, I haven’t spent a lot of time on it, but I’ve been thinking about your case, too. I think I know where you’re coming from. How about coming down for dinner with Chris and me next Friday — or are you going away for the long weekend?"
Hugh shook his head. "No, I’ll be in town."
"Cool. Come round then. Chris gets a kick out of puzzles and he’ll like this one."
And thus seven days later, with my lover pretty much back on East Coast time, Hugh sat at our table with us. The dinner conversation had been of a general nature, much of it centered on Chris’s trip to the UK, but when Hugh had declined a third helping of the Chicken Cacciatore Chris had prepared, I prodded him towards the subject of his visit.
"So, Hugh, you ready to tell us about your client and your theory?"
"OK. Sure." He pushed his chair back slightly. "Has Mike told you about this case?" he asked, looking toward Chris.
"He hit the high spots while we were getting the dinner ready. I think I have the gist of it."
"Well let me give you a quick synopsis," Hugh said, and for the next twenty five minutes he ran through roughly what he had told me at our first lunch.
"So you’re worried about your client deciding to take a plea bargain?" Chris asked.
"Well, not exactly worried. More like puzzled. Ever since I’d seen the evidence I’d advised him to take what the DA offered. If he went to trial, he had a good chance of a jury finding him guilty and that would have landed him more than double the time he’s got. So, if he’d taken the plea from the start, I wouldn’t have given things a second thought. It was that he’d been so adamant that he could prove his innocence at the beginning, and then later something happened that changed his mind. And, at the time I had no idea what it was. I just had this nagging suspicion that he hadn’t really done it. Now I’ve had a chance to do some digging around, and I think I know who did kill Keith Breidel."
"I’d have thought that someone entering a guilty plea was probably guilty," Chris observed.
"Not if he were, or thought he were, protecting someone else — like his father."
Chris shrugged. "Could happen, I guess."
"So what’s your theory, Hugh?" I asked, impatient to hear his version of what I knew — or thought I knew.
Hugh picked up his wine glass and settled back in his chair. "The way I see it, it was that Marine guy, Jim Spizziri, Breidel’s boyfriend," he said, looking up at us as though ready to face a challenge.
None came. "OK. Shoot," I said. This was a different angle — and a different suspect — from what I’d thought up. Even though Hugh had built a reputation for digging up evidence and for being thorough when it comes to sifting through what he uncovered, yet I found myself unwilling to admit he could have ferreted out more than I had. Or did my hesitation arise because the person in his sights was Jim Spizziri?
"Well," Hugh said, "it seemed that every time I looked for a suspect, I’d end up running into brick walls. Everyone who had a motive seemed to have an alibi. Everything fit just too perfectly. It didn’t sit right with me. So I went back to square one and made a list of everyone who benefited from Breidel’s death. I should have done this from the beginning, but at the time I guess I got too taken in by the evidence the DA had.
"Who gained from Dr. Breidel’s death?" He looked from me to Chris. "He has no close relatives. His parents are dead, and he has no siblings.
"We’ve got Edward Hillman. If he has been selling secrets to a competitor he certainly wouldn’t want that fact to be exposed. That would be a motive to be sure. But what if what he said were true: That he could not have got to the data without an alarm being set off in their systems? That would have limited his opportunity, and, as opportunity diminishes, so does motive. And if he had been selling these research files, where are the proceeds? What did he do with the money?"
He paused and looked from me to Chris. "When you come down to it, the only one that really gained anything substantial was Spizziri. He is Breidel’s sole beneficiary under the will. True, Breidel didn’t have much of a bank balance, but he’s got a nice portfolio of Zarcopharma shares, worth close to three quarters of a million as of last week; a pretty house in a good area of Savannah; and a hot sports car. And his company life insurance is going to pay out a pretty handsome sum.
"Know what Lt Col Spizziri had before Breidel died? I don’t know the exact amount, but roughly it’s a twenty-five year old house in a so-so area outside Tempe, Arizona, that he rents out; what he’s saved from his Marine pay over a couple of years; a five-year-old pickup truck," he paused for the effect, and added, "and a discharge from the Marines a year before his tour was up."
"How old was this Marine guy?" Chris asked.
"Kinda young to be a Lieutenant Colonel in the Corps," Chris pointed out. "They’re not known for promoting brown-nosers, so he must have done something right. And then he gets an early discharge. But he’s also the boyfriend of a smart scientist back East. So let me guess," Chris said bitterly, fixing Hugh with a stare that seemed accusing, "these rocket scientists in the Pentagon had this fast-tracking officer who, all of a sudden, turns out to be gay. God knows we have absolutely no shortage of recruits right now, and we all know there’s no war being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet they reckon they can afford to toss him." He grimaced in disgust and reached over to recharge his glass. He paused with the bottle in hand and asked, "Please don’t tell me it was a ‘bad conduct’?"
"Nope," Hugh replied, "he got an honorable discharge. He was more-or-less the iconic Marine. He had the normal Global War on Terrorism Service, the Iraq Campaign and the National Defense Service Medals, but a couple of years back he’d got wounded by some shrapnel from an IED. That got him a Purple Heart. But it wasn’t the medal that sealed his reputation within the Corps, it was that when he got hit, he stood there bleeding over his taxpayer-provided uniform, yet wouldn’t let the medics touch him until he was sure all the men in his team were safe or being evacuated."
I whistled softly. I hadn’t known that.
"So here’s a guy who puts the welfare of the guys in his platoon ahead of his own, and you think he’d turn around and kill his boyfriend?" asked Chris. "I don’t buy it."
"That’s because you’re not a Marine," Hugh replied. "That’s exactly why I think he killed his boyfriend."
He sat forward earnestly. "These guys live and die for the Corps. Their Semper Fi isn’t a war chant, it’s a credo for them. Once you’re in the Marines you never really leave. Even after your discharge you consider yourself a Marine. To lose that status would be, I reckon, an almost unbearable slap in the face. And I think it was Keith Breidel who outed Spizziri. Maybe it wasn’t intentional — or maybe it was. Maybe the continuous tension of his lover being in a combat zone eventually got to Breidel. Maybe he started to think that this Iraq War was looking like being another endless Nam that was unwinnable. Tours of duty are being extended, soldiers are going back for their second and third stints over there. Maybe it seemed to Breidel that it might never end. Or worse, that one day he might find himself in his best suit, holding the flag neatly folded into a triangle.
"Or," he continued, "on the other hand, maybe Breidel hadn’t thought about the consequences at all. Perhaps Breidel himself wanted to come out and chose the Internet to get his toes wet, not reckoning on the Marines ever finding out. In any case, he posted some photos of himself and Spizziri frolicking around in the nude amongst the dunes. A couple of them had some hard sex going on. But apparently the Marine Brass did get to see them and decided that it wasn’t in the Corps’ best interests to have this kind of recruiting poster, so Spizziri got canned."
"I dunno," Chris remarked. "Sex on the beach with a buff young Marine would be a benefit that could make me consider signing up."
But Hugh was intent on getting his theory out and, other than a brief smile that disappeared from his mouth as quickly as it came, he ignored Chris. "See, I think if it was those photos that got Spizziri discharged, it wouldn’t surprise me if he wanted to get revenge. In spite of what his unit thought of him, the early discharge was sure to lower the opinion many other Marines had of him, and that must have hurt."
"What makes you think Breidel put the photos on the Web?" I asked.
"Who else would have access to them? From the photos it was pretty obvious that he was the guy behind the camera."
"Look, let’s back up," he continued. "We’re getting this all out of order. Let me tell you how I came to figure this all out."
"Yeah," I said, "I’m getting a bit confused. Take it from the top."
"As I said, when Hillman first insisted on taking the plea bargain, I was at a loss as to why. Up until that day he’d been insistent on his innocence. Then, suddenly he did this 180 degree turn on me. And I hadn’t the faintest idea what was behind it. I tell you guys, it was such an impetuous and unexpected change in direction that I wasn’t convinced that he was genuine."
"How much did he know about the crime?" Chris asked. "If he hadn’t done it, there should have been inconsistencies."
"That’s the very thing that hooked the DA when Hillman took the plea. When they interviewed him he had answers down pat for everything. From their point of view, that sealed it. But you see, by that time I’d gone through with him all the stuff from the discovery motion that we’d been given, so by the time the DA’s office spoke with him he had had time to memorize details and come up with a satisfactory background."
Chris raised his brows and nodded.
"But something just didn’t sit right with me. I felt I wasn’t the one calling the shots any more. Hillman was jerking me around. I went and spoke with Fred Jackson about it, but he wasn’t much help: once he’d seen the evidence the State had, he figured out that the plea bargain was very fair — that I had done a good job."
He fell silent, either recollecting his frustration or marshalling his thoughts, I couldn’t be sure. I looked over at Chris who seemed to be conducting an experiment of friction with his wine glass, and I wondered what he was making of this tale. Normally he was a lot more argumentative, but, after all, he had had a busy week and was only just getting over the last of his jet lag. Hugh leaned forward, took a sip of wine and continued.
"But I couldn’t just let go, and eventually — I think it was more to get me to shut up than because he believed me — Jackson agreed to let me get Freiman to dig around a bit."
"Who’s Freiman?" Chris asked, surfacing from his tests and giving some evidence that he’d been listening.
"Aaron Freiman is a private investigator we use sometimes," I enlightened him, and, to tease him some, added, "That is, unless you have some computer nerd available who digs up crazy shit that no one else would think of and pulls your ass out the fire."
Chris laughed and raised his glass to me.
Hugh pulled a grimace. "Maybe I should’ve come to you for help rather than Mike," he said.
"I guess you should have," remarked my lover with a twinkle in his eye. "But first you need to ask Mike about my payment scheme." And for the only time since I had known him, the suave Hugh Pease was at a loss for words.
"Bad Geek!" I said, wagging my finger at Chris, which only made him laugh again, turning to me and puckering his lips in a kissing motion.
"As I was saying," Hugh spoke in mock seriousness, his composure completely recovered.
"Yeah, ignore Chris," I said. "I want to hear your theory."
"Well, Freiman took a drive out by Breidel’s house one evening and noticed Spizziri cleaning his pickup truck. The mats from the cab were out, and a plastic bag of what appeared to be trash was lying on the ground. With this in mind, he returned during the week when Spizziri’s trash can was at the curbside awaiting collection, and dumped the whole lot into a big sack which he took home. Sure enough "
"You can’t just take someone’s trash without a warrant," Chris exclaimed. "Can you?" he said looking at me.
"The Supreme Court says you can." I explained. "Once you put your trash out you waive any expectations of privacy you had. Hobos, children, dogs, anyone, can — and do — come by and rummage through your stuff. The justices figured — well most of them figured — that since you know this before you put your trash out, you can’t say you have an expectation of privacy. That’s why people went out and invented shredders."
"Man, that is such bullshit!" Chris protested. "What I throw out is a very personal record of what I do. Why should anyone else have a right to examine it?"
"Well, the garbage man sees it, so why shouldn’t anyone else?" I said, playing Devil’s advocate, since, personally, I tended to concur with his position.
"All I can say is thank God for the Internet," my guy grumbled. Hugh was grinning broadly, guessing rightly that Chris was probably more concerned about the occasional issue of Playguy or Men that he buried in the middle of the recycling rather than the possibility of a neighbor nicking a discarded copy of Cycleworld.
He let the silence hang for a few seconds to make sure Chris was finished before continuing. "In Spizziri’s trash he came across two things of interest: a receipt for the parking garage at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Seems he parked there on the Thursday evening before Breidel was killed and retrieved his car on the Saturday — the day after. The other thing he found was a Frontier Airlines ticket jacket with a flight number and a gate number. When he looked it up, it was an Atlanta to Phoenix flight.
"So," Hugh said after pausing to let this revelation sink in, "instead of being out West as our boy wanted us to believe, we now find out he was actually in Georgia at the time. He also rented a car." He gave a rueful smile, "It took me the best part of a night and some Scotch tape to piece together the receipt he’d torn up. Unfortunately some of the pieces were too soaked by other trash to make it complete, so I don’t know how many miles he put on it, but I know he had it for just under a day and a half."
"Maybe the fact that he’d ripped it up would be an indication of an expectation that he didn’t want anyone else to read it," Chris said rhetorically.
Hugh smiled at him, but didn’t take the bait. "So here I have motive and opportunity. The means we know. I think that, given the Corps’ zealous adherence to honor, I think I could persuade a jury that Spizziri’s motive was more compelling than Hillman’s."
"Have you found out any more about that trade secret stealing?" I asked. "Was it true?"
"It looks that way, but keep this to yourselves. Zarco called in some favors from a couple of State Senators and they put pressure on the DA, so all that’s in the papers is that there were some ‘internal irregularities’. And anyway, while Cerynitis admits they received the files, they deny they paid anything for them and there is no evidence of Hillman having any money that couldn’t be explained by a W2. Zarcopharma brought a suit against Cerynitis to recover their files and get awarded damages. The whole thing was hushed up and settled out of court just this week with no one admitting any wrongdoing. The judge had all the documents sealed, so I don’t know the details. It’s not good for their image if the drug-taking public thinks that the medicines they’re taking are the product of skullduggery. They prefer the picture of white-coated, grey-bearded scientists bent over microscopes and racks of test tubes."
"You told the DA of your theory?" I inquired.
"I tried to. The only guy who had any time to hear me out was Doug Jafek over at their office, and he wasn’t much interested."
I snorted. Dilatory Doug was Jafek’s nickname amongst the lawyers in all the law firms in Savannah. A paper-pusher with a big mouth he had never, as far as anyone could remember, had a win in court. Rumor had it that if you knew he was going to represent the State in a case, you could probably not even turn up in court and still get an acquittal for your client.
"Yeah, I know," Hugh sighed, "but he was the only one who would even listen to me. The way they figure things, they’ve got one crime and they’ve got one confession and one conviction. All very neat." He looked at me from under his black eyebrows. "They don’t see the need to continue the hunt."
"So what are you going to do?" Chris asked.
Hugh picked up his wine glass and studied it for a half minute or more "Nothing." He clenched his lips together in a hard line. He shook his head. "Nothing. My client is to all intents and purposes sane. He admits he did it. He assured the judge he made the admission under no duress.
"All I have is a theory. And questions that can’t be asked unless the DA takes an interest."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Like how Spizziri managed to afford a new pickup truck and get an in-ground pool put in when Breidel’s will is still in probate."
"The will is an open document. He could have got credit based on it."
"Perhaps," Hugh agreed dubiously, "but I doubt it."
"You said your trash-rat found an airline ticket jacket of this Marine guy. Did you see it?" Chris asked before I could say more.
"Did it have any checked-bag stubs stapled to it?"
Hugh thought for a minute. "No. No it didn’t. But that doesn’t mean much: most folks take their stuff in the cabin these days — especially if they’re only going away for a day or two."
"Yeah," Chris said absently. "Just thought it’d show if Atlanta was his end-point or whether he connected there from somewhere else."
"Hmm Like Savannah?"
"Savannah would strengthen your theory, somewhere else would weaken it." He thought for a few seconds. "OK. Say you’re right. Say the Marine killed the scientist. Why did your client turn around and say he did it?"
"I think he believed he was protecting his father. His father is a loyal, hard working researcher, and would have probably had a good shot at the directorship if Breidel hadn’t been around. Breidel was a whiz-kid. Natural talent and ability. And possibly, through being younger, a better person for the job in this new world in which we operate. Once Breidel was out of the way, the senior Hillman was once again in the running — but not if there was any suspicion that he had passed the research files to his son. At that point, the only way Hillman could save his father was to confess to having done it by himself.
"And then, of course," Hugh added, slightly self consciously, "there was the cost of his defense. Costs were adding up. Sooner or later, probably sooner, he was going to be out of funds. He sold his boat and his Corvette, but eventually his father was going to have to start paying."
Hugh stopped talking, and silence settled over the table as we all considered what he had told us. Chris was the first to speak. "Maybe he took the plea because he knows when it’s over he has all that money to spend. The loot from selling the data."
"The thought had crossed my mind," Hugh said with a slightly embarrassed smile.
"So if your client says he did the crime and you think he didn’t," Chris asked, "how do you account for the evidence of him being in the house? Like the fingerprints on the glass, the shoe print in the dust and whatever?"
"He admits he had been out there, but a day before. Breidel had a problem with his home PC. He was a brilliant chemist but pretty clueless about computers apparently. He’d told a colleague that one of the Zarcopharma IT guys had agreed to come out and help him. Hillman says he went out to fix it."
"What was the problem?" Chris bored in, "And was it fixed?"
Hugh threw up his hands. "I don’t know. He never told me what the problem was, but Hillman says he fixed it."
"And you didn’t double check?"
"Why on earth would I have done that?"
"Because if the problem hadn’t been fixed, you would have known your client was lying."
Hugh thought this one through. "I guess."
"What about the roofies in the glass?" Chris pressed on.
"That part’s a bit speculative. My guess is that when Hillman came out to work on the computer, Breidel gave him a drink. Perhaps Breidel hadn’t cleared it away, perhaps it was in an out-of-the-way place and he overlooked it. Anyway, the glass was still there when Spizziri came along on the Friday. He must have come in late Thursday night or early Friday morning, because otherwise Breidel would have set off for work. My guess is that Spizziri walked in. Breidel was happy to see him, and Spizziri poured them each a glass of wine — adding the large dose of roofies to Breidel’s glass. Once Breidel had passed out, Spizziri cleaned up. He realized that the glass that actually did have the roofies in it also had his fingerprints on it. But he had noticed this other wine glass standing there — a glass that could not have his prints on it since he had never touched it. So, thinking the glass was Breidel’s, he dumped the contents of the poison glass in to make it look like a suicide. And then he typed up the note to mislead everyone." Hugh continued to expand on his theory but I wasn’t listening. The import of Chris’s earlier question had suddenly registered in my brain and my thoughts began to churn feverishly.
The realization that no one was talking brought me out of my thought trance to see the two guys looking at me. "Oh, sorry. My mind was elsewhere. What were you saying?"
Hugh smiled mischievously. "Well I’m glad my theory held your rapt attention," he said. "I asked you what you thought of it."
"It’s workable. Things could have happened that way. It has the ring of authenticity that would probably achieve your objective of sowing reasonable doubt in the minds of some jury members. Did you run any of it by Jim Spizziri, by the way?"
"No. I didn’t want to go there. Didn’t want to tip him off. I was kinda hoping the DA’s guys would do that, but, as I said, they don’t want to do the work."
"Cut them some slack. They just don’t want to go up against me in court. My client didn’t do it."
"Your client?" Hugh jerked up as though galvanized and even Chris stiffened. "Who’s your client? You never told me you had any interests in this case. You’ve never said anything on the morning calls." He looked at me with bewildered anxiety. "Mike, if you had an interest in anyone involved in this case you had a duty to tell me. And you shouldn’t have let me tell you all this stuff."
"Relax, Hugh. Don’t get all bent out of shape! I’m not representing anyone associated with the case. Yet. But if Jim Spizziri gets roped in, I’ve got a feeling he’ll want me to represent him."
"How did you get involved with him?" Hugh asked, barely relaxing.
"Before you get all wound up, remember it was you who dragged me in to this case. Well, it caught my interest and I started to probe around a bit — just casually you know. Just in my spare time — nothing official. But I found out some stuff and came up with a different scenario to yours."
"And you held out on me?"
"No, Hugh. Why would I do that? No, it’s just that I have been really busy. All I’ve got is some raw facts. I was planning on telling you once I had all my ducks in a row, but I just haven’t got everything quite straight in my mind yet as to how it could have happened."
"So how about telling me what you have got?" Hugh suggested. "I think that’s only fair since you sat there and let me show you my entire hand."
"Look. Chill, buddy! Let me open another bottle of Shiraz and then I’ll lay it out for you." And so, with glasses emptied and recharged from the new bottle, I began to recount what I’d discovered in the past four weeks.
In gathering my thoughts I realized that while I’d pondered the case on and off since first Hugh had told me about it, the most telling facts fell into my lap on just two days. The first had been a Saturday about three weeks previous. In England Chris had taken the opportunity of the good weather to motor up from Boscombe Down to Yorkshire for the weekend to visit a cyber buddy who was taking him to grovel around the coal cinders and steam and oil of some preserved railway. Ah well, boys will be boys, I mused. From the Carolinas to Florida, not a cloud marred the Georgia sky, and the warm weather enticed me to play truant from chores and go up to Savannah to have some lunch and browse around the book stores there. I pulled on a pair of white jeans and shuddered at the thought of being up close and personal with a steam locomotive.
There wasn’t much traffic on the way up I-95 and my thoughts, freed from the normal weekday grind, gravitated to Hugh’s case. As the exit sign came up for state-route 204 it jolted my memory and I recalled that the dead guy had lived somewhere in the Isle of Hope area. On an impulse I swung off the highway and headed east, skirting the southern edge of the city. In Oakhurst I found a Starbucks with a wireless hotspot. Logging on to our server I found out the address I needed, and setting it up in my GPS, set out to find Wylly Avenue. Eventually, zigzagging down the tree covered streets, I came to the long, ranch-style house that stood about 100 yards from the creek. In the driveway stood a sleek sports car and a white pickup truck. This latter was surrounded by rags and sponges and a hose whose nozzle dribbled water. A pair of scarlet running shorts provided the only cover to a tall, muscular man who was drying off the cab and hood.
I drove past, my mission now seeming somewhat presumptuous, but at the end of the road my curiosity overcame my manners (and better judgment), and I swung the Audi around and returned, pulling up to the curb outside the house.
"Hi," I said as I walked up the driveway.
"Morning," the man replied in a pleasant tone, although he didn’t smile. "Can I help you?"
I hesitated. I had been so intent on finding the address I hadn’t spent much time planning what I was going to say. "I’m Mike Jorgensen. I work for Assmussen and Watkins." I handed over one of my business cards, and he wiped his hands on the red shorts before taking it. "Our firm represented Edward Hillman, the man who "
"I know who that bastard is," he said, his head jerking up from my card to meet my gaze through narrowed eyes. "Let me tell you, bud, he’s lucky he’s in jail because if he wasn’t, he’d be dead by now."
"Yes." I faltered. The man in front of me had become tense, the tendons in his neck tight, and as he turned his body to face me, his weight concentrated on the balls of his feet. "I was wondering if I could talk to you about things that you knew about Dr. Breidel. I wasn’t closely involved in the case from the beginning, and sometimes it helps to get a fresh start."
"A fresh start? What d’you mean? I thought the guy had already been sentenced."
"He has. But, there were some things about the case that were a bit puzzling," I said. "There was something unusual in the way Hillman wanted his defense run. Initially he insisted he was innocent and then, very abruptly and for no reason we could fathom, changed his mind when the State offered a plea bargain, and pled guilty. It seemed really strange to me and I wondered "
"If I had threatened him?" He stared at me without changing his posture and I began to feel vulnerable. "No, I never spoke with him. I never even got to set eyes on him — thanks to his plea." He dried his hands on one of the rags. With the damp cloth still in his fingers he looked up at me. "Believe me, I wanted that bastard to go to trial. I wanted to watch him as he was publicly shredded." A thought suddenly occurred to him. "You’re trying to get his sentence overturned, aren’t you?"
"No. Not quite like that." I stammered, taking a step back as he advanced on me.
"‘Not quite?’ Then what? If he’s been sentenced the case is over, right? So why would you be prowling around digging for stuff?"
"But what if things didn’t happen the way he said? What if something else was going on, don’t you think we need to find out what really happened."
"Get off my property," the man said, the tendons in his neck now as taught as guitar strings. "Get the fuck off and don’t come back."
"OK, OK," I said, holding my hands up and retreating. "Look, I just wanted to talk." The man appeared ready to spring and I didn’t turn my back on him until I reached the sidewalk.
As I turned the key in the ignition he came up to the car. "I’ll tell you this only once, so listen good. If you use some bullshit, shyster trick to get that sack of shit out of jail, you can tell him he had better watch his back. I won’t use poison." He took a step back, then thrust his head into the window. "And stay the fuck away from my house and my stuff. I know you guys took my trash last week. Try another trick like that and someone could get hurt."
I had no idea what he was talking about, but looking at the hands that rested on the pillar of my windshield I could envision them around a neck, my neck, squeezing, squeezing, and I didn’t press the point. Dumbly I nodded. The man held my gaze for a full five seconds before pushing himself away from the car. I slid the gearshift into drive and headed off down the street. Before I turned the corner I glanced into the rear view mirror and saw him standing in the road looking after me. The splash of red across his loins disappeared from the glass as I swung the wheel to the left.
I pointed the car in the direction of the city and drove automatically. I was angry. Angry with myself more than with the man I had just left. I should have known better, should have planned the meeting, what I was going to say, prepared myself for the several possible directions the encounter could have taken. Instead I had winged it and had come out like a first year student who had spent the weekend drinking and came into class unprepared on Monday morning. And just like that student, I’d been humiliated. For about fifteen minutes I drove toward the city in this embarrassed state until my cell phone rang. Jerked back to reality I grabbed it off my belt. I hadn’t been expecting a call and the ringing alarmed me. What time was it in England? About six in the evening. God, maybe Chris had got himself run over by a steam engine, my mind suggested in momentary panic, but a glance at the screen showed it was a local call and not from across the waters.
"Yes. Who is this?"
"This is Jim Spizziri." He paused, and when I said nothing, continued, "You were just at my house."
"Uh-huh," I replied warily.
"Look. Maybe I over reacted just now." Another pause. "I’m sorry."
There was silence on the other end. "Hello?" I queried.
"Yeah, I’m here. Look, I really am sorry about how I behaved just now."
"You said that," I said, still not sure what he was getting at. Yet something in his tone made me think that his apology might be genuine, and I dropped my attitude. "I guess it’s been hard times for you."
"Look," he said as though he hadn’t heard me, "if you want to come back and talk it’ll be OK. Don’t get excited — I still think that Hillman did it, and I still think he’s a piece of shit. But you were right: if he didn’t do it, I want to know who did. There’s only one thing I’ll ask from you in return. Twenty-four hours. That’s all I need. Twenty four hours before you tell the police."
Oh, God, where do people get their ideas of how lawyers work? "I can’t do that. If it is someone else I can work to finding out who, but once I have any evidence I shall be compelled to hand it over to the district attorney."
There was a pause. "We’ll see. I’m a resourceful guy." There was silence. "So you going to come back?"
I was wary. Why the sudden change of attitude? "I’m not sure that would be a good idea."
"Oh, shit. Look, I said I was sorry."
"Uh-huh. You did."
"You eat hamburgers?"
Is this guy on crack, I wondered. "Yeah," I said. I pulled off from the light and swung into a gas station: the conversation was becoming too surreal for me to continue driving while having it.
"Just wondered. Thought you might be vegetarian."
"Why? Because I don’t want to aid you in embarking on a private vendetta you think I don’t eat meat?"
His tone lightened. "It was a possibility."
"No. I’m not a vegetarian."
"Well, I can get some coals going now and by the time you get back here they’ll be ready to grill. Then you can tell me what you came by to say."
Curiosity began to overcome my wariness. "OK. That sounds good. I could do with some lunch," I said.
"See you then." The phone went dead.
I took a deep breath and swung out into the road headed back the way I came. But just before turning into Wylly Avenue I pulled up and left a message on Don’s voicemail as to where I was going. One needed to cover oneself.
As I drew up outside his house the man came walking down the driveway. The red shorts had been replaced by dry black ones and the muscled abdomen was covered with a white tank top.
"So let’s start this from the beginning again," he said, holding out his hand as I got out and locked the Audi. "Hi, I’m Jim Spizziri. Most folk call me Spizz."
"Hi, Spizz. I’m Mike Jorgensen."
"Hi, Mike." He looked me over in a glance and said, "Well what are we waiting for. It’s hot out here. Let’s go and get ourselves a beer."
Standing next to the grill, the condensation from a cold bottle of Four Peaks IPA dripping over my fingers, I watched my host expertly flip the burgers over the coals. Conversation as he cooked was limited to small talk about Savannah, Spizziri asking where I lived and where I worked. He seemed a nice enough guy, smart and educated, and his hospitality appeared genuine, but I remained wary, aware of the muscles and lithe tendons that changed with every movement. Once the meat was on the buns, however, and I’d accepted some of his family’s home-preserved peppers and a second bottle of beer, he came straight to the point.
"So, Mike, cut to the chase, buddy. You said there was something about that ass-hole changing his plea that worried you." He bit into his burger.
"Well, yes and no. Actually I’ve really had nothing to do with the case. A friend of mine who works in the same firm was Hillman’s defense, and he was the one that got suspicious. It wasn’t that Hillman changed his plea — shit knows, with the evidence the DA had, Hugh (that’s my colleague) had recommended that Hillman accept whatever the DA was offering."
"Your buddy not a fighter?"
"No. He’s good. But you never know with a jury. In spite of what the judge tells them, they get influenced by the damndest things." I took a bite of hamburger and my tongue exploded in a sheet of pain that shot up into my nasal passages, shutting them down so I had difficulty inhaling. "Holy shit!" I choked as I hurriedly tried to pour enough ale into my mouth to quench the fire that had engulfed it. "Jeezus, Spizz, these peppers are hot!" I gasped, wiping the tears from my eyes with the back of my arm.
My host sat there grinning at my discomfort. "Bird peppers. My brother grows them himself in back of his house down Austin way," he said as though that somehow explained the damage that about 50 thousand Scoville units were wreaking on my throat. "This is a good batch.
"Here, take another brew."
"Thanks," I finally managed to gasp. "They are good. I shouldn’t have taken such a big piece." I took a knife and spread the peppers a bit more evenly over the meat. I began to better comprehend the game that was being played: I was being put through some kind of initiation, a test by which my host could gauge my mettle. OK. If that were the case I could play along. The next bite was better and my seared taste buds could appreciate the slightly smoky flavor that came through the spiciness.
"So your colleague didn’t want the bastard to face a jury? That should tell you something. Or was that some kind of lawyer trick to get the money without doing the work?" He gave a brief smile and again bit into his burger, the well-defined facial muscles pulsing as he chewed.
"Well he was faced with rather unbalanced odds," I said, ignoring the remark. "At the start he had a client who was apparently very insistent that he could get evidence that would acquit him; Later, when given the chance to produce it, his client couldn’t — or wouldn’t; and the evidence the DA had was pretty compelling.
"Given all that, and since the deal being offered was fairly light considering the circumstances, taking the plea seemed to be in his client’s best interests." I took a mouthful of my burger. The hot peppers were, indeed, good.
"How did you know what evidence the State had?" Spizz asked.
"They have to disclose it."
"Geez, you lawyers have it easy. Imagine if every time we had to go into battle the enemy had to tell us what his plans were?"
"Seems to me it’d be a good idea. Probably save a lot of lives."
"Yeah. Right. And maybe every Marine would then live on the coast and drive around in a fancy car, too."
"Spizz, do you know what the legal term ‘stipulation’ is?"
"It’s when both sides of a dispute agree on certain procedural matters. It saves time and money and enables the lawyers to get to the meat of the case without getting bogged down with trivial stuff."
"Good. So let you and I stipulate that we both know there are bad lawyers and there are good lawyers, and that there are dumb Marines and there are smart Marines. So you lay off the lawyer cracks and I’ll stay clear of any Jarhead jibes."
He looked at me for a second and a smile broadened on his face. "Deal. Sorry."
"Whatever Hugh’s, my colleague’s, advice was, the client didn’t have to take it. He could have instructed Hugh to continue preparing the case and go to trial. If he didn’t like the way Hugh was proceeding, he could have requested another attorney. But he chose to take the plea bargain."
"So what’s got you all beaded up?" Spizz asked. "Why not say ‘Cool, Dude! I’ve done my job,’ and walk away?"
"Because if the legal system is to work, it has to work the whole time. We can’t have people being pinch hitters for someone else — even when they volunteer for it." I lifted the last piece of burger off my plate, but paused before popping it into my mouth. "At least that’s what’s driving Hugh. I don’t really know what’s driving me besides an obsession to know."
I sighed, realizing that this foraging for details of evidence outside of the confines and precepts of the legal system was a novel course of action for me, alien to all my training, even. I considered this while I chewed, then found myself smiling sheepishly at my lunch companion as though I felt a need to explain. "My partner goes half ape if he can’t figure out the reason for something happening, and I guess some of that’s rubbed off on me. I find myself needing to know why this guy, Hillman, changed his mind about the plea bargain."
"Partner like someone you live with, or partner like another lawyer?"
"We live together."
"Thought so." He gave me a long look which I couldn’t interpret. Eventually he spoke. "Didn’t you wonder why I invited you back here after I chucked you out?"
"You said you wanted to know who really committed the crime."
"Yeah. I do. But it’s easy to say that perhaps someone else er killed Keith. Different people could have different reasons for thinking that. When you drove away I noticed the HRC decal on your bumper. That made me wonder. I figured if you were gay, and since you knew Keith and I were, you were possibly less likely to be pulling some kind of shit." He gave me a look out of the corner of his eyes. "I also thought you might see things from my point of view a little easier than some straight guy would."
"If you’re asking me to help you in your vendetta scheme, the answer is still no."
Spizz gave a smile which I interpreted as meaning he was not going to stop trying. "Your partner a lawyer, too?"
I shook my head as I finished chewing. "No. Cyber-punk computer-nerd."
Spizz laughed. "Home life must be interesting." He stopped abruptly and his jaw tightened. "God, I miss Keith."
I nodded. There was not much I could say.
"Seems like I’m a fuckin’ jinx: all I have to do is fall in love with a guy and he dies."
"It happened before?" I asked, the attorney in me supplanting my tact. Patterns of spouses, lovers or friends dying mysteriously tend to raise questions in lawyers’ minds.
"AIDS. Long time ago."
"Shit, I’m sorry." I paused. "Happened to me, too."
"Takes some getting over, doesn’t it? Big guilt trip."
"Yeah," I sighed. "It was a left-right jab for me. We’d broken up, he had a new boyfriend. I thought I was over him. When he died I found out I wasn’t."
"Keith worked on AIDS drugs," Spizz said, almost musingly. "That’s how I met him. I’d joined a support group after after Leo died. Keith came to talk to us one day about the progress in treatment." He looked away for a few seconds, and then asked, as if to change the subject, "So where’s your partner now?"
"He’s in England. He does computer stuff for airplanes and he’s gone to do some work with the Brits."
"Ah!" He paused. "You’d better watch out," he said giving me a wink as he stood up and retrieved another burger off the grill. "Those London lads are a pretty horny bunch, I hear. Some wild parties over there. You want another?" he asked nodding toward the hot meat on the spatula.
"Sure. Thanks. They’re good." He slid the patty onto my plate. "Yeah, Chris has probably creamed his jeans five times today already, but it’s OK: it’ll have been over some steam engine or another. He has a cyber buddy who’s told him tales of some preserved railway line near where he lives that has real working steam locomotives, and Chris has been like a stag in rut ever since he knew he was going over there."
Spizz laughed. "To each his own. You gonna try some more peppers?"
"Sure. You’ve got me hooked."
I skimmed over all this with Hugh and Chris as we sat around the dinner table. I hadn’t learned much more from Spizz. He knew about as much as we did. That a colleague had found Keith dead in his chair in the sitting room; had broken in by smashing a pane of a French door; had called 911; that an autopsy had, at first, found very little, but when the police had discovered the traces of flunitrazepam in a glass that had become wedged behind some cushions, subsequent tests found traces in the body fluids. From the little that remained in the glass, and allowing for evaporation, they concluded that the dose had probably brought on sleep, followed by his breathing slowing down, and that in turn would have led to a coma and, inevitably, death.
"But," I pointed out to Hugh, "as far as Jim Spizziri’s trip to Georgia is concerned, it all seems above board. He had a job interview with Georgia Pacific in Atlanta. According to him, they’re planning on expanding their gypsum manufacturing plant in Savannah and they were looking for a project manager to run the enlargement program. As you said, he flew in on the Thursday night. Stayed at the Holiday Inn down by the airport. He had interviews with the Georgia Pacific folk in the morning and again in the afternoon. He had dinner with two of their managers that lasted until about 10:30. He flew out to Phoenix at about 6:30 in the morning. He wouldn’t have had time to drive to Savannah and back."
"So how come he flies to Atlanta on a weekend and doesn’t come down to Savannah to see his boyfriend whom he hasn’t seen for close on a year?" asked Hugh, nothing but the slight tightening of his lips betraying the fact that his pet theory had just been squashed.
"Well, he was licking his wounds a bit. As he explained it to me, here was his partner, the uber-successful research chemist, and there he was, couldn’t even hang onto a commission in the Marines in a time of war. It was a kind of macho thing: he wanted to come home with at least a good job offer under his belt."
"Why was he in Phoenix?" Chris asked.
"That’s where he’s from. He went there after his discharge to come out — to his family and some of his friends. He went on the Internet while he was there and that’s when he saw the job opening at Georgia Pacific."
"Did he get the job?" Chris asked, trying to balance a fork off the blade of a knife that, in turn, was balanced on top of the salt cellar.
"Yeah. Nobody’s going to screw with him on the job: he’ll get things done."
"So why didn’t he tell the police that?" Hugh demanded. "If he’s so squeaky clean, why did he let them believe that he was out West the whole time?"
"Apparently the cop that went out to interview him wasn’t all that tolerant of alternative orientations. Making a crack about fairies is not a good attitude when one’s dealing with a battle-hardened Marine. They quickly turn it into a mano-a-mano contest and become very uncooperative."
"And now he’s your client?" Hugh said with a slightly sardonic smile. "Just because you’re gay! If it’s that easy for you guys I might have to rethink my orientation."
"Oh, man," Chris burst out, "I am so the guy to help you there. Geez, I can show you so many ways being gay is better than being hetero."
"Dork!" I remonstrated as I cuffed him across the back of the head, "keep your mind on the topic." He collapsed into laughter as Hugh grinned and shook his head. "He’s not my client. I think that I’m probably the only lawyer he knows, though, so if he needed one I think he’d ask."
"So, since you don’t like my version, what’s your idea of what happened, then, Mike?"
I hesitated and then explained, "I reckon the guy you should be after is Josh Kelzer — the guy that says he discovered the body."
I noticed Chris raise an eyebrow, but he continued to play with the cruet set on the table and didn’t look at me or say anything.
"Why him?" asked Hugh.
"Well, towards the end of my afternoon with Spizziri, I happened to admire a terra cotta pot he had on the flagstones where we were sitting. It was filled with dry soil, desiccated Spanish moss, and a very dead plant. When I made the remark about it, Spizz admitted he hated the pot and had just not got around to getting rid of it, so if I really liked it and wanted it, I could have it. When it was time to go, he carried it out to the Audi for me and, as he was placing it in the trunk, warned me that there might be some shards of glass in the soil and the Spanish moss, because the guy who had found Breidel had used the pot to break the pane in the French door.
"I didn’t think too much about it at the time, other than to realize I had a kind of macabre souvenir, but on the Sunday when I was taking the dead plant out, I was carefully picking out some of the chunks of glass when I noticed something that was rather extraordinary. The segments of glass in the pot came in two different patterns."
"Huh?" Hugh exclaimed.
"Yup. There were a whole lot of little pieces of glass like pebbles, but I came across a few pieces that were a bit bigger and, although cracked, stuck together.
"That was odd, I thought. Feeling them between my fingers I thought they seemed of different thickness, but I couldn’t be sure. That puzzled me, so I wandered down to your workshop and got that G-shaped measuring thing that you use. With that "
"You used my micrometer?" Chris burst out.
"Yeah. It’s not really all that difficult, dude — especially since there is a sheet of instructions in the box," I said with forced nonchalance, enjoying the amazement on my lover’s face.
"That’s strange," said Hugh. "I wonder that the police didn’t notice that?" ignoring the interchange between Chris and me.
"Because the little pieces were caught in the Spanish moss around the base of the plant, and the police had their attention directed to the big pieces lying on the ground by someone else. By two people, actually."
"What do you mean?"
"OK. I went through all your case notes. The statement taken at the scene is given by Josh Kelzer and corroborated by the guy that went out to the house with him — Leigh something-or-other. Josh says he went around the back with Leigh, he saw Keith lying in the chair, and then he broke the pane of glass and went in. If you read Leigh’s statement it says essentially the same thing, but he adds that when Josh went round back, he told Leigh to stand at the corner and keep an eye in case anyone came. He goes on to say that Josh called him to say he’d found Breidel and to come quickly and he (Josh) broke the window to get in.
"I think this is a bit of sleight of hand. The first thing that caught my eye was why Josh felt it necessary to post a lookout. They were doing something that wasn’t illegal: they were on the property with reason — Keith hadn’t shown up for work and wasn’t responding to phone calls. Moreover, as Leigh recalls, he was on the lookout in case ’anyone’ came. Anyone? If all was as they say, wouldn’t he have been on the lookout in case Keith came around?
"I think Leigh was placed somewhere where he couldn’t see the French door. Josh calls him and immediately breaks a piece of glass on the edge of the pot. Leigh may hear this, but even if he doesn’t, when he comes up to the door, Josh is standing there, pot in hand and pieces of broken glass all around. Just as Josh intended, Leigh assumed that the pane has only just been broken."
"Holy shit!" Hugh exclaimed. He paused, "But why did he break a piece of glass?"
"Because there was no pane of glass in the door. It had been broken when Kelzer came to the house on the Friday."
Chris looked at me, startled. Hugh gaped. "Holy fuck! Do you think that’s what happened?"
"Well, I didn’t know at first. All I had was a theory. I didn’t know this Josh guy, and I could hardly go up to him and ask ‘Did you murder Keith Breidel?’"
"You had the two different types of glass," Chris observed. "You could have taken that to the police, or the DA or whoever you guys deal with."
"It wouldn’t stand up in court. The chain of evidence wasn’t just broken —- it had never been established at all. The pot had stood outside Keith’s house since the crime with access to anyone who went around there. When I brought it down here, it stood outside our front door for a day. By that time Spizz had cleaned the patio of any remaining glass and the window had been repaired."
"So really you can’t say that Josh killed the guy, can you?" Chris said. "I mean, maybe he broke the glass first, then found this Keith guy dead, and got scared that he’d be accused — as it seems you’re trying to do — so he arranged for a replay, this time with a witness. Probably technically illegal, but not worth much more than a slap on the wrist."
"Concealing a death gets more than a slap on the wrist," I admonished because Chris tends to take the law way too lightly, but then I softened. "But, yeah, with that alone I couldn’t go anywhere."
"So," Hugh grumbled, "you shot my theory down, but yours isn’t really much more than speculation."
"Hang on. I’m not finished yet. See, I told you I hadn’t got everything neatly arranged yet, that’s why I hadn’t called you up.
"What I needed, I realized, was to find out more about this Josh guy and whether there was any connection between him and Keith. I had no real standing in the case, so, even if Hillman hadn’t copped a plea, I couldn’t barge in and start questioning anyone. I had gleaned from the notes that Josh worked in Zarcopharma’s IT group, so I thought that maybe I could get some info from some of his colleagues if I trod carefully.
"It took me a while to figure out an approach. I knew I didn’t have the knowledge to engage a tech in a meaningful conversation, but then I thought of Chris and what he likes to do. He’s a kid at heart — he loves to play with toys. So the next day I went into Savannah and bought one of those drinking bird things, then I went to the closest restaurant to Zarcopharma just before lunch time, ordered a beer and a salad and a glass of water, and set my bird to drinking."
"I’ve never understood how those things work," Hugh said. "Do they have a little battery hidden inside?"
"Naah," Chris replied, catching the fork before it hit the table. "It’s thermodynamics. The liquid in the bird "
"Hey" I said, shaking my finger at him. "Wait your turn. This is my story. You can play with the bird when I’m finished."
Chris gave Hugh a shrug, and grinned at me, making a rocking motion with his arm to mimic the dippy bird.
"Well, after about fifteen minutes, folk started to drift in, and, sure enough, about ten minutes later two guys and a young woman came over, plates and glasses in hand, and asked if they could sit at my table and look at my toy.
"They sat down and examined the bird, playing around with it — seeing if taking the water away from it made any difference, or if it would work faster if its body was in sunlight. Complete geeks! Once they felt comfortable around me, I steered them to talking about work. Feigning surprise when they mentioned that they worked for Zarcopharma, I asked if that wasn’t the place where some guy had shot another worker.
"Well, that opened the floodgates. Correcting me, saying it was poison not shooting, started the talk — just as I had intended. And I got the whole story from an entirely different angle — for instance, did you know that Hillman’s father had worked at Zarcopharma right from the start?"
"Yeah I think I’d heard that. Not sure from whom. I didn’t think it had any bearing on the case. Did it?"
"Don’t think so," I shook my head, "but there was something else that did." Chris appeared to be concentrating on his cutlery sculpture, but Hugh raised his eyebrows in expectation.
"After the two guys had run through the facts and added some colorful and improbable theories of their own, one settled down to finish his lunch, but added, almost as an afterthought, that Josh Kelzer didn’t seem as cut-up about Breidel’s death as he would have expected.
"I was on tenterhooks. This was the first thing I had heard that was in any way new, and I was scared that the conversation would end there. But the words seemed to act like some kind of catalyst, because the other guy interrupted his chewing to say that he wished that Josh would just come out of the closet and admit he was gay so that everyone else could stop skirting the issue."
"Holy shit," Hugh said.
"Uh-huh. As you say. But at least that gave me the opening to ask if Kelzer was involved with Breidel. The guys both said they thought so, because Kelzer had been the one that management had asked if he knew where Breidel was when he hadn’t turned up at the office. But the girl burst into the conversation by stating categorically that he wasn’t. She went on to say that he, that is Kelzer, wasn’t involved but desperately wanted to be. She explained that over the past month or more, Kelzer — of course she referred to him as Josh — would make every effort to try and be in the cafeteria just at the same time as Breidel. She told how Josh would hang around the salad bar or the hot-food counter pretending to be making a choice until Breidel showed up and then he’d go sit at a table with him."
"Was there anything between them?" Hugh asked.
"Robin — the girl who was at lunch — thought not. She pointed out that they were both rather shy people. She said it was like the mating ritual of some timid arachnids that spent most of the time motionless in contemplation and then would make slight advances and retreats, never closing the distance that separated them. But she pointed out two interesting facts: that since the weekend of the killing, Josh has seemed more assertive. The guys played that down: they thought that it was mainly brought on by Hillman, who was Josh’s boss, being out of the picture and Josh running the group now. Robin didn’t buy that, and then exploded her second bombshell.
"Why, she asked, had Josh had a wall calendar that, for the week preceding the 20th, the day of the murder, had had that day circled in red, and why, after the murder, had that calendar disappeared, to be replaced by some nondescript picture."
"Geez-us, Mike," Hugh was amazed. "And that’s why you think ."
"That Josh did it?" I finished the sentence for him. "Yeah."
Chris gave me a scornful look. "And his motive was?"
"Well, there isn’t one for murder, because I don’t think he meant to kill Breidel, I think he was just criminally negligent."
"So what do you think he did, then?" my partner asked, and I thought I detected a sardonic touch in his question. ‘Oh yeah, buddy,’ I thought to myself, ‘You’re not the only one who can look at clues and work out where the trail runs.’
But aloud I responded clinically. "I think he was timid, but desperately wanting to get into some sort of relationship with Breidel. I suspect, just as the girl pointed out, nothing was happening from the casual meetings at lunch in the cafeteria. So I reckon that Josh finally organized a date of sorts with Breidel. Not a date as in ‘Want to go out and have dinner Friday night’, but rather ‘Hey, that computer problem you have, I can fix that. I’ll come round Friday night. Won’t take more than fifteen minutes.’
"But I thought Breidel was the IT guy who was going to fix Breidel’s computer, not Hillman?" Hugh said.
"Yeah. But maybe he didn’t fix it. Or maybe on the Friday at lunch, Breidel mentioned what Hillman had done, and Kelzer had said that there was a way better way of doing it. Remember, the girl said that Kelzer was way smarter with PCs than Hillman.
"And so, on the Friday night, he does indeed go out. He’s armed, however, not only with his technical skill, but also with a couple of roofies. As expected, having had his computer problem fixed, Breidel offers Josh a glass of wine. Seizing the opportunity — who knows, maybe Kelzer had asked for a glass of water, anticipating that Breidel would suggest them having a drink together — he drops a roofie, probably crushed, into his host’s wine, maybe while Breidel gets a snack or turns some music on. Now, here things are a bit hazy in my idea. Maybe he doesn’t know much about roofies, or maybe because the roofie was crushed, Josh slipped in a larger dose than he intended. Or maybe because he himself was tense he had planned to take a smaller dose himself to relax his nerves and, by mistake, or because Breidel was coming back to the room, he dumped the extra into Breidel’s glass instead of his own.
"Who knows. Anyway, instead of Breidel becoming more mellow, he fell into a sleep from which Kelzer couldn’t wake him. At that stage he decided to leave. After all, what was the point of staying if his target was comatose?
"The next morning he tried to phone Breidel but got no answer, so he went around to the house. There wasn’t any answer to his ring on the doorbell, so he wandered around to the back of the house and peered into the sitting room where, to his dismay, he saw Breidel lying exactly where he had left him twelve hours before. In a panic he used a nearby pot to break the window and gain access.
"And then his worst fears were confirmed: the guy was dead.
"He very quickly realized that he was in deep shit, and his only possible deliverance would be if no one knew he had visited Breidel. Very calmly he went around the house and removed any trace he could find of him being there. He realized that his fingerprints were on the glass Breidel had been drinking out of. He sees another glass on the sink and assumed that only Breidel’s prints were on it, so he poured the remains of the wine and poison from the fatal glass into this one. Unfortunately it was the glass Hillman had drunk from the previous night. After he’d done that, he washed up all the plates and other glasses he could find, he vacuum cleaned the entire house and, afterwards, replaced the vacuum cleaner bag, taking the full one with him when he left. He believed that the vacuum cleaner bag contained all the evidence that the police would have needed. In the process of Kelzer cleaning the house up, a hair of Hillman's, probably one that had dropped the previous day, got caught in the vacuum cleaner’s brushes.
"Knowing that drugs might be found in Breidel’s organs, Kelzer decides to make the death look like a suicide. But, as that Robin girl told me, he knows Breidel only superficially, and thus the suicide note is soon shown to be fake. I think that, even having staged the suicide, he didn’t report the death, because he needed to have a reason to go out to the house. A reason that he could explain to the police without making it seem that he was in the habit of casually dropping by. So, on the Tuesday — after 72 hours has passed — he goes out with a colleague. In the interim — possibly on the Sunday — he had cleaned up all the shards from the broken window pane and replaced it with another sheet of glass. Probably held in place with a small piece of tape, because new putty would have been a dead giveaway. When they got to Breidel’s house, Kelzer left the colleague a little way away, ostensibly on watch. This allowed him to get to the French doors unaccompanied. He took the sheet of glass out of the frame and, calling to his friend, broke it over the edge of the pot. The friend heard the glass break and arrived just in time to see Kelzer pushing his hand through the opening to unlock the door. From that moment on he would swear that Kelzer broke the window at that time."
"Shit, Mike," Hugh said. "I could sell that to a jury. That’s a credible alternative." He nodded pensively. "Not bad work, man."
"Thanks. I was kinda pleased at how easily things seemed to fit into place." I turned to Chris and rubbed his neck, ruffling his hair. "So, Dude, what do you think?"
For an instant I was on edge, waiting for his response. He shook his head. "Won’t fly. You’re force-fitting facts into a picture you have in your mind. The only thing that you really have is those two different types of glass. That was pretty smart to pick that up, by the way, and I think that your extrapolation that Josh lied about breaking the window on the Tuesday is probably accurate, too. But I think that you’re over zealous in saying that, because of that lie he committed the murder. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It is far more likely that the young guy was just scared and wanted to have an alibi for finding the body."
I was chagrined by the cool — cold — way in which he dismissed my theory. "This from the guy that always says, ‘when you see one rat there’s bound to be twenty more around.’" I said to Hugh.
"Guys, guys," Chris said. "You’re approaching this from the wrong angle. The way you’re going you can come up with one theory after another, and each requires just some trivial fact that you didn’t know to disprove it.
"Look, Hugh came up with a theory that had me convinced, then you came up with that job interview and that fact blew his proposition. Now you come up with an idea that is based on two different pieces of broken glass and a shy guy trying to get a date. That’s a house of cards if ever there was one."
"Geez, Chris," I said, "Don’t pull your punches on my account, buddy." I felt wounded. I had put a great deal of work into coming to my conclusion, and here was my guy shooting it down without even a cogent counter argument. And what was all that crap about Hugh’s story having him convinced? It sure hadn’t seemed that way at the time. If I remembered correctly, Chris had given him quite a grilling.
Chris sensed my hurt. "No, Mike, don’t get me wrong. You did a great job of getting info. I mean that dippy bird thing was stellar, man. Any techie would have been drawn to it like a magnet. And you got them to tell you all kinds of stuff, and from everything you found out you drew a very reasonable conclusion."
"I thought it was a house of cards," I reminded him.
"Yeah. Well just because you work hard doesn’t mean you get it right first time." Yeah, this was my guy. A solid tech, and, I had to admit, not being any harder on me that he would be on himself, merely demanding that evidence be incontrovertible.
"Look, Mike, the way you approach it you may get to the right answer, but the odds are against it. You can find out a whole bunch of stuff, and every time you can make a case from what you’ve got. But then you have to decide, from the gazillion theories you have, which is the right one?
"It’s like the guys trying to find a cure for AIDS. They kept on trying to figure out what caused it. But there was some place in Africa where there was this group of prostitutes who were real active and yet never got AIDS. Yet nobody ever thought to ask ‘Why are these people NOT getting the disease?’"
"So ?" I asked, not following the analogy.
"You need to ask yourself, you need to find out, why Hugh’s client admitted he was guilty. And maybe from the answer to that, you’ll find your answer. My money is on that he knew that he was. Neither of your theories adequately addressed that to my way of thinking."
"Maybe," Hugh said with a great deal of doubt evident. "So you think it was what that Lyman guy, the other lawyer, said that forced the change? You think he knows the answer?"
"Perhaps. But if what you told me is accurate, Hillman changed his plea after you reamed his ass for stealing the computer. That’s where, in my humble opinion, the answer lies. Find out why he wanted the computer so badly.
"Look," he continued, "I don’t mean to come across as condescending, but how much experience have you guys really had? It’s not that I’m older — or wiser — than y’all, but in my job I may handle anywhere between four and fourteen problems a week all related to computers or airplanes. If you guys get three murder cases a year it’s a lot."
"Yeah, but " Hugh interjected.
"Hang on," Chris held up a hand to stem Hugh’s rebuttal. "I’m not saying I’m smarter than you. What I want to point out is that when you took your evidence to that senior partner guy in your firm "
"Fred Jackson," I said.
"Yeah. Whoever. He has much more experience in all this than you guys do, and he said that it wasn’t worth pursuing. You’ll just bury yourselves in hunting hypotheses."
Hugh pondered this. In his own way, I thought, Chris was offering a withdrawal with honor. "I know," our guest said eventually. "They warned us in school not to get personally involved with cases, but sometimes it’s hard not to.
"I guess we’ll never figure this one out unless Hillman has a change of heart. But he seems to be adamantly sticking to his story right now. And it looks like I’ve got another case coming down the pike, so even if I wanted to carry on picking at this one, I won’t have the time.
"I so wanted to be right and prove Fred wrong, though," he laughed.
We passed the next hours talking of other stuff, only occasionally referring to the case and, at about 11:30 Hugh stood up to take his leave.
Chris was more talkative as he and I cleared up after our guest had departed, and I had a feeling that he was perhaps a tad remorseful for shooting down my theory so bluntly.
"So, what do you want to do?" he asked as he started the dishwasher. "Want a glass of Rioja and unwind before we go up or are you tired?"
"No. Rioja’d be good," I said.
"So tell me," I asked as he carefully poured the dark liquid into two glasses, "how did you know about the shoe print in the dust?"
"You asked Hugh how he would discount the evidence of the shoe print in the dust."
"He said something about it. Or you did when you were telling me about things before he came."
"Nope, bud. He never said anything and I hadn’t told you because I’d forgotten about it."
Chris handed me a glass. "I guess that comes from reading too many crime stories: there’s always a footprint in the dust." He gave me his disarming smile and stood aside to let me go through the doorway.
I stopped in front of him. "You’re mind-fucking me, Chris. You knew all about this case from the start, didn’t you? I figured it out this evening — this all happened over the weekend I was in Chicago and you didn’t want to say anything about it when I came back."
"Look Chris, this is crazy. It’s time you leveled with me. You owe me that."
He looked down at the floor. "I guess," he said at last. "OK. But remember, I’m trusting you. Whatever happens, what I tell you here stays here. It goes nowhere else. Not to Hugh, not to anyone whose name I mention, and not to Spizziri. Spizziri must never get a hint about this."
I seached his face, he was deadly earnest. Those were his terms and conditions, there would be no edging around. "I know. I’ll be cool."
"OK. Let’s go sit. It’s a long story."
"Well," he said once he had settled down on the couch, his left leg tucked underneath him, "that first Saturday you were away I decided to ride into Savannah and grab a beer and some lunch. I was waiting in line at that place that has the upstairs balcony that overlooks the river, when this young guy came up to me and said that his grandmother had invited me to join them for lunch. It was the old Mrs. Seaburn. Seems like every now and again she gets the urge to go out on the town, so she invites her grandson out for lunch so she can get a ride. So I went over to their table and she and I did the normal sparring that she puts me through every time we meet about the way I dress," he flashed me a grin. "This time it was my ripped jeans. She made out as though she thought I’d come off my bike." I nodded, smiling: I had long ago come to the conclusion that Chris and the old girl each enjoyed the cavil that broke the ice every time they met. They reminded me of two dogs that circled each other, hackles raised in bravado before running off to gambol quite happily together in the waves.
"Anyhow, we settled down and the lunch was good. The grandson, Neil, was quiet and, although Mrs. Seaburn tried to engage him, she and I did most of the talking. One of his work colleagues was there, too — apparently he had been helping Neil with some computer problem when the old girl had called to ask him out for lunch and had been invited to tag along. As the meal went on Mrs. Seaburn seemed to get hassled by her grandson’s withdrawn attitude, and, towards the end of the meal, she finally skewered him. Apparently he had mentioned some kind of big problem at work and she wanted the details. He beat around the bush for a little while, but she was having none of that. So he finally admits that he has this deadline on Monday and he has managed to somehow lose all the files he was working with on his computer. I kinda assumed a disk crash, but he said no, he’d saved them to his memory stick, but later they weren’t there, nor were they on the computer disk.
"Well, first off, the old girl gives him all sorts of shit for being careless, which makes him all defensive and this other kid is really trying to buttress up his story for him. But their theory sounded like a crock to me, and, since it would give me an excuse not to do the chores around the house, I offered to swing by his place of work with him and have a look at what I could see. So, after lunch, we piled into his car, took Mrs. Seaburn home. I promised I’d come see her again sometime and have a chat, and then Neil, Graham — his buddy — and I drove over to his office.
"It took some time for Neil to sign me in — it seemed as though he had never signed anyone in before and wasn’t sure how to do it. But it wasn’t all bad — the security guard on duty was a pretty hot-looking dude, so that was OK with me." Chris gave me his what-are-you-gonna-do-about-it smile and earned himself a kick on the shin. He laughed out loud, took a sip of the Rioja before continuing. "While Neil dicked around, I got chatting to the guard. He was busy with pieces of paper writing all sorts of stuff down, copying it from the screen, so I asked him what he was doing. He told me that he had to do a report on how many people keyed in and out of each door to see if the company needed to have an additional security guard station at one of the other doors. Copying something from a computer screen seemed like a pretty dumb-ass way of doing things, so I asked him how they stored the data. It was basically a CSV file, and at the end of each day it was copied to a CD. Each month they cleared the file and started a new one. So I told him that I could whip him up a report in five-minutes flat if he could give me one of the CDs. This seemed like a pretty good deal to him, and he handed over the CDs for the previous twelve months and Neil, Graham and I went up to Neil’s office.
"His boss had taken the Friday off, and since his PC had twice the memory installed as Neil’s, Neil had been using it because it speeded up his work considerably. On Friday night he had saved all his files to his memory stick, as he did each night, and shut the PC down. He had intended to finish compiling the report at home, but, on Saturday morning he discovered that the files had disappeared from his stick. He was a hundred percent sure that he had saved his files the previous night, so he was convinced something must be wrong with his stick. In a panic, he had called this Graham guy who lived in an apartment in the same building, and he came over. And while he assured Neil there was nothing wrong with the memory stick, yet he had no more success than Neil in finding the files. In the end, thinking his work had somehow to be still on the hard drive, the two of them had gone into the office.
"But when they powered up the boss’s PC, they couldn’t find the data on the hard drive either. They tried everything they could think of, but the files were nowhere. That was when Neil’s grandmother had called to invite him for lunch, and why he’d been so morose during the meal.
"So, since I never trust anything anyone else says, I sat down and went through everything they had already done."
"You are a nerd, you know that?" I pointed out.
"Maybe. But people often think they’ve done something and they really haven’t. You learn the hard way — don’t believe anyone. Anyway, they were right. The files were nowhere. Some of the files he’d been working were EXCEL files, and when I opened up EXCEL and looked at its list of recently-used files, sure enough I saw it pointed to the E drive — right where his memory stick was now mapped.
"I was poled. Nothing made sense. It seemed that somehow the files had mysteriously disappeared, and I couldn’t offer a reason why. I went through with him, step by step, how he’d closed his files, how he’d pulled his stick out, how he’d shut the system down. Everything was copasetic. There seemed to be no alternative but for him to redo all his work.
"Man, I thought the guy was going to cry. He had worked for days and everything he’d done was gone. But that Graham turned out to be a true buddy. He sat down and said that, if Neil showed him what to do, he could help redo some of the stuff; said he could work through the night with him if need be. So, while the two guys settled down to recreate the work, I sat down at Neil’s boss’s computer, brought up EXCEL, and within fifteen minutes I had the report done for the security guard."
"The cute security guard," I reminded him, and my guy didn’t even blush when he pursed his lips and gave me an enthusiastic nod of agreement.
"Hey, I sliced-n-diced the data for him: He had the data sorted by entrance; by date; by staff member. I put the program on my memory stick and took it down to him with the reports. Man he was ecstatic: I’d saved him about four hours work at least."
"And you didn’t even get a blowjob for all your work," I teased him, leaning forward and rubbing his thigh.
Chris shrugged. "Win some, lose some, I guess," he said. He lifted his glass, and let a sip of the ruby liquid trickle slowly down his throat. Setting the glass back on the table, he sat back. "On the way back upstairs I was thinking of Neil’s data-loss problem. It just didn’t make sense. Older data remained on his stick, so it wasn’t as though that had somehow got nuked or reformatted. We had searched through every disk-drive that was mapped through their intranet and come up blank. Where could the files have gone?
"When I got back to the office, the other two guys were hard at work and I didn’t want to interrupt Neil to drive me back to my bike, so I sat down at the boss’s desk and looked at his PC. Nothing special about it that I could see. But the devil finds work for idle hands, as they say, and within about ten minutes I had it shut down and the power plug pulled, and was busy with my Leatherman undoing the screws that held the cover on the case.
"And there it was. Inside the case were two disk drives. At first I thought that the guy had a mirrored setup where the data was written to two drives in case one died, but when I looked more closely I saw that they were of different sizes, so that couldn’t be the case. And then something caught my eye. The power cables to one of the drives had a splice in them and, tracing the wires took me to a micro-switch stuck in the back of the cabinet.
"For a few seconds I couldn’t figure out what operated the switch, but then I saw it. The plug for the monitor had those normal two screws that locked it in place, but on this one, one of them was much longer. When screwed in fully, it closed the switch. The way it was then, when I was sitting there, neither was screwed in at all. So I screwed them in and powered up.
"And bingo! I had the boy’s data in front of me."
"You know," I remarked in genuine awe, "that would happen only to you. There is not another human being that could have uncovered that."
"Well, not in that amount of time," Chris, not one for false modesty in tech matters, admitted.
"What did Neil say?"
He chuckled. "I decided to have a little fun with him — he was really wound up about losing the data. So I took my memory stick off my key ring and copied all his files to it. Then I walked over to him and said that I’d read somewhere that the brain emitted electrical impulses and, if one thought hard enough, these could be picked up outside the skull. So I held my memory stick on his head and told him to think, step by step through everything he had done with the data in the lost files. At first he thought I was crazy, but I insisted, and he sat there for about two minutes with his eyes closed, then he jerked up and said it was all bullshit.
"’Not so fast, buddy,’ I said, and put my memory stick into his computer’s USB port and told him to check it out."
Chris laughed out loud. "Man, it was so funny. There on the screen he saw all his files. He didn’t know what to make of it. For a while I tried to tell him that I’d captured his thoughts, but he wasn’t buying that, so I took the two guys over to the boss’s PC and showed them the second disk.
"I pointed out the little switch to them and demonstrated how it worked. While Neil and I were talking, Graham had sat down at the keyboard and was browsing through some other files that were on the second disk. Suddenly he called us over to the screen to see what he’d found. What he’d discovered were about thirty or so pictures of two guys, stark naked, going at it amongst the dunes on a beach," Chris said, banging his left fist with the heel of his right hand to emphasize his words. "Neil seemed kinda embarrassed by them and told Graham to close the viewer, and when I asked him about the guys in the photo, he told us that one of them was one of their real senior lab analysts. The other man he didn’t know, but from his haircut and the dog tags around his neck, was apparently in the military."
"Jim Spizziri, probably," I said.
"Yeah. We found that out. Graham "
"Do you think these were the photos that busted him out of the Marines?"
"Pretty sure. I’ll get to that. Neil wanted to shut the whole thing down, and forget it, but Graham was hot on the trail. He opened every file on that disk."
Chris stopped, took a big sip from his glass, and through a throat constricted with remembered emotion, said simply, "It was blackmail."
"Who was blackmailing who?"
"Neil’s boss was blackmailing Keith Breidel." He paused, then added, almost spat out, "And guess what: his boss was that shit, Hillman."
I could hardly rationalize what I had just heard. This started to put a spoke in a whole lot of wheels. "But wait," I said. "No. This doesn’t make sense. The blackmailer doesn’t kill his victim. That’s killing the goose that’s laying the golden egg. It’s the other way round. Victim kills blackmailer."
"You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet," Chris said.
"The three of us were going through these files, each one Graham opened proved to be more amazing than the previous one.
"It took some time. An hour. Maybe more. We had to go by file dates to figure out the sequence. But it appeared that about once a week or ten days, Hillman had been receiving a set of files. We assumed they came from Breidel. They didn’t make sense to us; not even to Neil. All names of chemicals and lot numbers and then columns of numbers. We had no idea what they were, but Neil said they looked like company files from the labs.
"And then we hit pay-dirt. It was a text file, a copy of an email. It was simple. It said, ’So, Doctor, you think you can fuck with me. Look at the new Marine recruiting posters,’ and it gave a URL.
"When we tried to click on it, it came back as an invalid link, but when I Googled it I came up on a couple of hits in some folks’ blogs, and from what they said, we understood that the site had some photos of a hot-looking Marine apparently engaged in steamy sex.
"So what do you think about them apples, my learned legal friend?"
"It’s mind-blowing, Chris." I looked at him trying to grasp everything he had told me and categorize it with everything else I knew. "But still, it just doesn’t make sense. Why in fuck’s name wasn’t it Breidel that killed Hillman?" Then it hit me, "So Hillman was telling the truth: Breidel was going to blow the whole story. If he was going down, he’d take Hillman with him."
"As I said, you ain’t heard nuthin’ yet," Chris said without the humor that should have accompanied the phrase. "I shall yet recount to you a tale that will have you weeping in pity and pounding your fists bloody at the prison gates to wreak the justice that still remains unserved." There was something in his voice that, even as I rolled my eyes at his hamming, made me take up my glass to fortify my nerves.
"Neil, Graham and I were so engrossed in what came up in screen after screen that we didn’t realize that we weren’t alone any longer until we heard someone asking us what the fuck we were doing." Chris broke into laughter. "Shit, it was funny. Neil spun round and held his arms out as though he could hide the computer from the guy in the doorway." He looked at me, shaking his head. "Geez, Mike, I tell you, I’ve never seen a guy so scared in all my life as this new guy was. His face was white and he was holding on to the door as though he was going to fall.
"‘You OK?’ I asked him.
"He looked at me like I was an apparition. ‘Who are you? What the fuck are you doing here?’ he said. It wasn’t a challenge. I tell you, Mike, the guy was scared out of his friggin’ mind. I didn’t know who he was, and I turned around to Neil to see what he was going to do. I mean, technically, I was his guest there, but he was just standing there with his arms out in front of the computer and his mouth open.
"I thought maybe the new guy was Neil’s boss — y’know, the guy whose PC I’d just taken apart, so I said to him, ‘I guess you know what we found on your PC.’
"‘No,’ he said, and he came into the office, past me, past Neil, until he could look over Graham’s shoulder at the screen. We still had the blogs up and obviously that meant nothing to this new guy.
"‘Neil, what’re you doing? Why’s Ted’s computer all in pieces?’ he asked, and from that I guessed that the guy wasn’t the boss after all.
"Neil kinda started going to pieces. He was like just dumping out everything he knew in one big jumble. He told the guy about losing his files, of Graham trying to help him, about me finding the disk. It was like drinking from a fire-hose and clearly going right over the new guy’s head. I had heard Neil call him Josh, and I remembered the name from the files I had worked with for the security guard. He just stared blankly at Neil. So Graham, who was kinda detached and calm about everything, started to show him the JPEGs and after that, the files with all the numbers.
"I’d been looking at the screen "
"Those JPEGs must have been pretty compelling," I interjected.
Chris gave a half-hearted smile, but continued as though there had been no interruption. "But when Neil brought up the tables of numbers, I glanced at the new guy — Josh — and there were fucking tears running down his cheeks.
"I put my hand on his back and told him that things would be OK. Don’t know why I said that — I had no idea what the files were or why he was upset. But all this Josh guy kept saying was ‘The bastard. The bastard.’ I didn’t know who he was talking about, whether it was Breidel or the guy who owned the desktop. But seeing him crying had brought everything to a halt. Graham and Neil were looking at him, astounded, and not saying anything.
"Eventually he pulled himself together and wiped his face with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. And then he kinda got a second wind. Y’know: got some resolve. He said we had to stay there, none of us could leave until he called some other guy. He went through to a cube a ways away and got on the phone and did some real serious talking to someone, but he was all very quiet and I couldn’t hear what he said. I don’t know about Graham, but I was getting a tad uneasy. I mean, I wasn’t an employee, I’d opened up one of their computers, I’d found some stuff that looked pretty damning. And Neil certainly didn’t look as though he was going to be of much help. He looked as though he’d got kicked in the balls.
"I still had the reports I’d done for the security guard on my memory stick on my keys, and I slipped it into the USB port and took over the keyboard from Graham. The reason I had remembered Josh’s name was that I’d seen it when I started working. He had been in the previous night, about elevenish. A guy named Farrell had come in a bit later and, my report showed, the two had left together at about 4 in the morning. I had some ideas starting to form in my mind, and I asked Neil why Josh would’ve gone in to the office late at night. Neil said that it was probably some computer problem: they all carried pagers. Then I asked him if the Farrell guy was the owner of the PC I’d taken apart. But that idea was wrong, too, ’cause Neil said that Farrell was some big shot in the company — one of the executives in the stratosphere of the corporation.
"That didn’t fit any pattern. Why would an exec come in with a tech in the middle of the night?
"Josh was still talking on the phone, so I asked Neil if he could check what kind of problem Josh had been called on. He came to the keyboard and pulled up a new application, but within ten seconds he told me there had been no calls on the previous night at all, and, in any case, Josh wasn’t on call that week.
"Things were looking real strange, but right then I saw Josh walking back towards us. So I told Neil to clear the screen and keep quiet about knowing anything about Josh having been in the previous night.
"Josh had certainly had a recovery. He was definitely Mr. Guy-in-Charge. He said that he’d been in touch with one of the directors and we had to wait because this guy wanted to speak to us.
"I looked at Graham and he raised his eyebrows. I knew what he was thinking — there was a pretty good chance that we outsiders were going to be hung out to dry. But I held my finger to my lips for him to stay cool and not say anything."
"You could’ve phoned me," I said.
"It was late Saturday afternoon and you were at your Law School reunion. What was I going to do with an inebriated lawyer?" Chris asked in a patently innocent tone.
"I was not drunk," I protested, but, as recollection came back, added, "Well, not very. And there were a bunch of us there — together we could’ve come up with good advice."
"R-ight," Chris nodded. "I’ve been to your office parties, remember? I know what lawyers are like when they unwind. You and your buddies would have made my case into some legal enigma just so that you could enjoy the look on John Roberts’ face when he got the appeal."
"Two-bit crooks who break into computers don’t get their cases reviewed by the Supreme Court," I informed him.
Chris resettled himself on the couch and went back to his tale.
"So, the four of us sat in silence and waited for this director-guy to come in. Josh spent the time going through the files we’d discovered on the PC. Without much to do, I was thinking about everything that I knew about what was going on there. Things were starting to take up positions. I had a two or three theories that could fit the facts as I thought I knew them. Then, while I was sitting there, I realized what my subconscious had been telling me all along: brother Josh was a mo."
"Oh, God. You and your gaydar. To you any human that has a dick is gay."
"No. The dumb ones, I know, are straight. The real smart ones are likely to be gay. The rest just wish they were," he opined in a matter-of-fact voice. He went on, "No, this guy had the aura. Nothing real obvious. Each thing, by itself, was hetero, gray sweatshirt, jeans torn at the knees, tan hiking sneakers, messed-up short hair. Each by itself said breeder. But hang them all together and you had fag. I watched him for a while, and the more that I looked at him, the more I was convinced I was right. And just when I thought I had him pegged, I noticed something else: he had never looked at any of the JPEGs."
"Of course," I heckled. "No real gay guy could possibly get on with work and ignore a stash of porn."
"No. Yeah. No. No, you don’t understand. I’m not saying that he should’ve kept tracking back to some web porn site. I would’ve thought that the JPEGs were a kinda important part of the evidence. I mean, Zarcopharma is a drug company, so one would expect to have files with chemical names and numbers around. You wouldn’t expect to have a bunch of photos of two guys having sex in the sand. Not even if you’re developing Viagra. So why did he so strenuously ignore them. Since Neil had shown them to him, he hadn’t looked once. Kinda strange, don’t you think? Could it be because they were painful for him to see?"
"A long shot. Maybe. OK. I’ll let you have that."
Chris nodded absently, his mind eager to continue on its dissertation. "So I spent the next twenty minutes or so pondering about the significance of the guy who didn’t watch porn.
"Eventually, we saw a man coming striding down the corridor, Josh jumped up and met him at the door. They had a few words together and I saw the man point to me and Graham, and I guessed he was asking the million dollar question: who the fuck were we?
"Sure enough, that was the first question out of his mouth when he came into the office. I had had some time to rehearse how I was going to respond to that, so I handed him a business card from my wallet and said that I was a friend of Neil’s who was there to find some lost data. Graham hung off my introduction, merely adding that he was there for the same reason.
"That threw the ball into Neil’s court, and again he went into his torrent of explanations about why he’d been working on this computer, how he couldn’t find the data, how I’d found the other disk, that there was a switch. The new guy, who Neil addressed as Mr. Farrell and Josh called Rich, bent over to look at the switch and seemed quite interested in the mechanics of the setup.
"Then Josh started to show him the files we’d found, and this time he showed the photos as well. Neil, Graham and I just stood in the background watching. Rich didn’t seem too interested in most of the files, but he made Josh flip back and forth between two of the data files several times, and he would point out something on them.
"This went on for quite some time, and Graham and I eventually pulled up chairs and sat back to see what was going to happen. Neil, of course, was all nervous and, even when Graham pulled up a chair for him, wouldn’t sit down.
"Eventually, Rich finished looking at the screen. He told us to stay in the office and he and Josh went out into the corridor and had a long and fairly intense conversation. Josh had gone back to being scared again, and I saw Farrell put his hand on his shoulder to reassure him. Graham and I were hounding Neil to try and figure out exactly how deep the shit we were in was, but he wasn’t very reassuring, and kept saying how sorry he was to have dragged us into the mess. Graham was worried that they were going to try and pin a data-stealing charge on us, but I thought that would have been unlikely with Neil there.
Chris drained his glass and refilled his and mine. "After about five minutes, the exec and Josh came back into the office. Josh looked as though he was about to wet his pants." Chris shook his head as he remembered. "Farrell began to grill us again on what we had seen in the files. He told us that all this was new to him and that he — nor anyone else at Zarcopharma — had known anything about the files or any underhand activities until Josh had called him and told him what we’d found.
"I listened to his story for about two minutes and then stopped him. I came straight out and told him, that, from my point of view, they had two of their guys doing industrial espionage. One was being blackmailed to get the data, the other was selling it. And then I asked him point blank, if he knew nothing about it, why had he and Josh been in the office in the wee hours of the morning going through Hillman’s computer files.
Chris pointed his finger at me. "That, Mike, really put the cat right in the middle of the pigeons. ‘What are you talking about?’ Farrell tried to argue, so I laid it out for them.
"I pointed out that, when Neil had left work on the Friday evening, he had been able to write his data onto the second hard drive — which, at the time, he had assumed was his memory stick. That meant that the screw on the monitor plug had been screwed all the way in at that time. On Saturday morning when he came back in and powered up, however, he couldn’t find the other disk. That meant that the screw was not screwed in and, in fact, when I took the PC apart later, neither screw was screwed in at all: friction alone held the plug in place. So that more-or-less proved that someone had come into the office and unscrewed it. Hardly the likely behavior of the cleaning crew, but quite possible if someone had come in between, say 11pm and 4am and had taken the PC to another office to spend some time searching through the hard drive.
"If Farrell and Josh had had their act really together, they might have been able to bluff their way out even then, but Josh was such a novice that he blew it. ‘I am so fucked!’ he said, and with that I knew I was right."
"Tell me, Chris," I asked "How do you do this? How do you always manage to come up with these wild theories that always just happen to pan out?"
He shrugged. "It’s just that I’m curious. I look for the reason for things. I hate seeing something that I can’t explain. Like here, it made no sense that Neil could see his data one day, then a bare twelve hours later he couldn’t. I just had to find a rational reason — and there weren’t that many possibilities."
"But you’re not happy when I do it?" I said, only half joking.
"No. I was proud of you. When I first met you, you wouldn’t have done that stuff with the glass. Shit, you’d probably have cut your finger. Now you noticed something was out of place — you even measured it which was phenomenal — and you realized it was significant. And it was. You just jumped to the wrong conclusion."
I stood up and went over to the couch and, leaning down, kissed him. "I love my nerd."
He rubbed my back. "Yeah. I love you, too."
"I need to hit the can. Don’t go anywhere."
"Where would I be going to? I live here, remember?"
When I returned, Chris had scrounged up some cheese and set it out on a little plate. I took a piece and sat back down. "OK, Dude. I’m set."
"OK. Let’s see. Where was I?"
"You’d just told them that you knew that they’d been messing with the PC on the previous night."
"Oh. Right. Well, as I said, Josh blew their cover. He just slid down into a chair and his head hung on his chest. Farrell stayed cool. ‘What makes you think we were here last night?’ he asked. So I told him about the report I’d done for the security guard. I think that’s when he finally understood what he was up against. Neil, Graham and I knew pretty much everything. I said to him that, as far as I could see, it was check mate, and I thought that he and Josh owed it to the three of us to lay their cards on the table."
"If ever there was a mixed metaphor," I said.
Chris grinned. "Hey, what can you expect from a nerd!" He leaned over and sliced a piece off the cheese and popped it into his mouth. He chewed for a while, then spoke. "So I once again asked him the million dollar question: why had he and Josh come into the office in the middle of the night to go through Hillman’s computer files?
"And then the story came out. In dribs and drabs at first: Farrell started, and Josh added pieces or corrected what Farrell had said. The gist was this. Josh is, indeed, gay. He wasn’t just in the closet: he was behind its back wall, covered by the dust of five, six, seven years of denial, of trying to ignore what his hormones were yelling at him. He went out with girls and never had the slightest spark of a relationship. He enjoyed himself most when he was out with a guy, but was too terrified to even plant a little kiss on his cheek. One day, Keith Breidel, Zarcopharma’s hot shot young scientist, Doctor of Biochemical Pharmacy, holder of God-knows-how-many patents, and destined to be Zarcopharma’s next director of R&D, happens to come into Josh’s office with a computer problem. Josh is smitten. Over a month or more after that he contrives to have lunch with Breidel. Nothing sexual at all, no hint of orientation. They talk about the weather, about the company, about chemistry and computers. Anything except guys. Of course, this didn’t come out at that first meeting — Josh told me this much later when he found out I was gay — but it makes the story more easily understandable if I put it like this.
"Josh is a sexual novice. The only hint that his friend might be gay comes from an HRC tie. His gaydar, which in his case is as effectual as a dowsing stick, doesn’t help him any, either, and he doesn’t compute that Breidel’s closest friend, who happens to be with the Marines in Iraq, is in fact his lover and partner."
"Good," I said. "Finally you get some proof that not all gays are as smart as you insist they are. This Josh guy is obviously not."
"Hey, don’t get smarts mixed up with inexperience. Give this guy a computer and he smokes."
I laughed. Chris’s theory on the correlation between intelligence and gayness was obviously not going to be easily shaken.
"One day, luck — or fate — steps in. Breidel happens to mention to Josh that his home PC is running real slow. Finally an opportunity for Josh to meet Breidel outside the office. He offers to go around and see what the problem is. Breidel declines the offer at first, perhaps recalling what his first encounter with one of Zarcopharma’s IT guys had cost him, but when it is taking over two minutes to open a web page, he gives in. Breidel wasn’t going to be available for the next few days, so they set an appointment for the following Friday evening.
"On the next day, which, if I remember correctly, was a Tuesday, Josh happens to be in the little office where they have their Xerox and fax machines and their general-usage printers. Shuffling through the printouts looking for his own stuff, he sees a whole lot of pages of names and data that don’t look like the normal stuff that prints off there. As a computer tech he half wonders whether one of the lab guys — who are often computer illiterate — has selected the wrong printer. While he is looking at the sheets, this Hillman guy storms in and grabs them from him, and on his way back to his cube, Josh hears Hillman berating Neil for using his PC and resetting the default printer. Josh pays no attention to it at the time.
"On Friday, without having seen Breidel to reconfirm, and being far too insecure to phone him to check if they were still on for their rendezvous, Josh arrives at Breidel’s house at 8pm — the time they had agreed on several days before. There is no response to his ring. None to his knocking. No answer when he uses his cell phone to call the number he’d looked up online. ‘Maybe Breidel’s gone out of town,’ he thinks, but looking through the garage window he sees Breidel’s car inside. So he goes back to his car and waits for a while. Having come so far in his quest, Josh finally allows his hormones to overcome his timidity, and he walks around the house to the back. Everything is quiet. The sun has set and twilight is setting in, but our hero is made of stern stuff: he not only walks around the house, he peers in at the French doors that lead to the back patio, and he looks into each window that overlooks the back yard. At about the third window, to his horror, slumped across a bed, lies a comatose Dr. Breidel. Josh bangs on the window, bangs and bangs, but sleeping beauty doesn’t stir.
"So what does our hormone-driven champ do? He uses a flower pot to break a small pane in the French doors on the patio that lets him get at the key and he lets himself in."
"Yup. No accounting for what happens when hormones attack rational thought. Anywho, he races across to the sleeping doctor, only to find that, rather than a sleeping man, he has a body. A body that is cold and way beyond calling 9-1-1.
"Now say what you want about my ideas, here, in a situation that would have had your average, macho, hetero running like a scared rabbit and crying like a girl for help, our guy stays put. He understands that having broken into a house and having found a dead person, he is in a delicate position. If the police come, he could become the prime suspect. He took stock of the situation in a manner that would have done James Bond proud. Next to the guy on the nightstand is a manila envelope addressed to Breidel. Using a screwdriver and a pair of tweezers from his computer repair kit he pulled the papers from the envelope which, of course, had already been opened. There were nine sheets, and Josh recognizes the top eight as the sheets his boss had pulled out of his hands the previous day. On studying them, he sees that they were all similar and appeared to be lists of names. As far as he could tell from the headings, they were apparently related to something in 1992. The ninth sheet had a few lines scrawled across it to the effect that Breidel had better come up with some new and valid data when the sender returned to work after the Labor Day weekend. Underneath he had added, "What do you think the Lt Colonel will think of these?"
"This didn’t make any kind of sense to Josh, and he put them aside. The only other things on the nightstand were a glass with a little liquid still in it and an envelope addressed simply to Jimmy."
Finally it dawned on me what Chris was saying. "Oh, fuck. It was suicide."
Chris nodded somberly. "Uh-huh."
It made no sense. "But the evidence ? And why did Hillman take the plea? If he had been blackmailing Breidel he must have known, or at least guessed?"
"All in good time, my friend. A good story, like good wine, cannot simply be gulped down." He leaned forward and once more filled my glass. "You have to savor each mouthful to appreciate its excellence."
I felt trapped. My gut told me there was no way this story could unfold in a good manner. The word ‘excellence’ just uttered was reverberating in my mind like the slowly dying tones of a struck bell that was a portent of what I was about to learn. I wanted to simply push it all behind me into some dark corner, yet at the same time I was fascinated by the abstruse logic of the actions Chris was laying down step-by-step in front of me. If for no other reason, my brain rationalized, from a professional standpoint, I needed to know what circumstance had persuaded Hillman to accept a prison sentence for something he had apparently not done.
Chris tucked his leg under him as he continued, "They say the first murder is the hardest, don’t they? Well, it seems that it applies equally to other transgressions. Having read the contents of one envelope, Josh had no qualms about tearing open the other — the one addressed to Jimmy. And many things snapped into sharp focus in Josh’s mind. Firstly he realized that Dr. Breidel was definitely gay. Not only that, but he had a very deep relationship going on with this guy called Jimmy.
"After reading the first paragraph of apology and self-loathing, he came to the details. He told how, after asking one of Zarcopharma’s IT people to look at a problem on his home PC, the IT guy had stolen the photographs of this Jimmy and Breidel on the beach. With the threat of sending these to people in the Marine Corps he had persuaded Breidel to give him details of the research and test results for one of their latest anti-viral drugs. Breidel realized that the IT guy — Hillman — was going to sell these, and, while ostensibly capitulating to these demands, he had believed he could outsmart him. And so he made subtle changes to each set of test data that he handed over. He had thought that these would go undetected, buying him time at least until he had purchased all the pictures back. And they would have. Unfortunately his blackmailer had been less than honest — surprise, surprise — and hadn’t destroyed the photos as he’d promised, and so, when Breidel’s deception was discovered, he had published all the photos on the Web as punishment. And, as expected, these had made their way to the Corps’ hierarchy and now Jimmy had been discharged.
"Breidel’s tormentor, having had one vein peter out, now found something else to afflict him with. It wasn’t exactly clear from the suicide letter to his boyfriend what he’d done, he merely, obscurely, confessed to killing someone called — I can’t remember the name — Nish-something, and, for that, he acknowledged that Jimmy could never excuse him.
"The letter ended with a rueful plea for forgiveness, both for the pictures and for his actions that had led to the death of this other person."
Chris looked up and met my gaze, and in his eyes I saw the discomfort of his spirit. He spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness as he said, "Josh’s mind was in turmoil. The guy who had been the center of his fantasies for weeks was dead. He had been gay, after all, yet he and Josh had never admitted this to each other. If only they had, if only he had, could Josh have provided more support? Perhaps prevented Breidel from killing himself? And who, and how, and when, had Breidel killed? And what did the killing have to do with this Jimmy guy?
"Zarcopharma is a company that, even though it’s been around for a while, still has a family feel to it. Josh knew that the sheets in the manila envelope had something to do with Zarcopharma, but he didn’t know what, nor how sensitive they were, but he guessed that if they were enough to get a guy to kill himself, they were probably pretty important. It also seemed that his boss was involved, so who could he turn to for advice?
"About a month before, Josh had been called up to the office of one of the directors who could not get the firewall set up the way he wanted it on his PC. Josh had been kinda nervous going up to the rarified levels of the executives’ offices, but the director had proved to be quite personable, and when Josh had fixed the problem, had been appreciative and spent a little time talking with him about the company’s IT group. So now when Josh felt in need of discussing the data theft with somebody, this person was who he turned to."
"And this director was this Farrell guy?" I asked, trying to keep the players straight in my mind.
"Yeah. A real nice guy, actually. I’ve got a lot of respect for him. He could have thrown Josh to the wolves, but he didn’t. Josh had phoned him that night and told him about Breidel and about what he’d found. If ever there was an ‘Oh Shit!’ moment for Farrell, that night must have been it. But he stayed cool and merely told Josh to meet him at the office and bring all the papers with him."
I was astounded. "Don’t these guys have a corporate legal department?" I asked. "That should have been his first call."
"I think Farrell feared they might have gone too far down a slippery slope to expect any real help from a lawyer."
"Breaking into a house when one sees an unconscious person inside wouldn’t have got anyone into trouble. Opening the envelopes might have got a judicial slap on the wrist if an over-zealous DA had decided to pursue it. But taking them away — that’s tampering with evidence. Big-big no-no."
"Well, that I understand. But these guys were in the middle of a crime scene real time." He grinned at me, "And I’m going to start skipping stuff if I’m going to get another ‘See why the world needs lawyers’ harangue."
"What if I promise I won’t?"
"Well . all right then. Seal it with a kiss and I guess I’ll tell you."
When the agreement had been thus formalized, he continued. "Josh took the glass from the nightstand and put it in the fridge in case anyone needed to analyze the liquid inside. He told me he thought it might have been some Zarcopharma drug. An hour or so later, he and Farrell met at the office as I had surmised from the security guard’s log, and Josh took him through everything. They pored over the eight sheets and could make neither head nor tale over what the import of them was and why they so dismayed Breidel. At about midnight Farrell pulled some rank and called one of his managers from the labs, and Josh scanned the documents and emailed them to him. The reply came back within minutes. The sheets listed the names of people taking part in a trial of a drug. There were two copies — four sheets in each copy. Each copy listed the participants in the trial, the identification number assigned to each for the test and whether the participant was in the test group, which means they would receive the drug, or in the control group and would get a placebo.
"Well, that told them what the documents were, but they were still no wiser as to why they should be so important as to get a guy to kill himself. And then, our midnight cowboy came through."
"That manager that Farrell had called. In corporate America, Mike, if you get called by a director, you pull out all the stops, dude."
"Oh, OK. We peons do that for partners, too, you know." Then I jabbed his thigh with my toe. "We just happen to be more articulate at protesting."
"At protesting, maybe." Chris stroked his chin as though in serious thought. "But can you hack into his PC the next time he’s giving a presentation and flash a picture onto the screen of him in the nude?"
"Oh, God. Don’t you guys ever grow up?"
"Not if we can help it. Look, do you want to hear my story or not?"
"I’m hanging on every word that drops from your lips," I assured him, and got a single finger salute in response.
"So, this guy had thought that, since he’d been called by a corporate bigwig, it behooved him to dig around a bit on his own. He came back with an email saying that the list was for the test of a new AIDS drug that Zarcopharma had produced some years before. He told us that the files in their current database had only the second set. He couldn’t find the first one anywhere, but that it differed from the second in that two names had been swapped between the test and control groups at the request of one of the testers, identified as KB."
"Keith Breidel," I suggested.
"T’would seem that way. And this finally gave some link between the documents and Dr. Breidel, although neither Farrell nor Josh could figure out why this simple change would have caused such a reaction in Breidel. Technically it was a fault in the testing, but "
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, the way these trials are carried out is called a ‘double-blind’ method. What this means is that neither the researchers nor their subjects know who is receiving the test drug and who are receiving the placebo. The reason they do this, you see, is to try and make sure that any changes in the patients’ conditions can be attributed only to the drug and nothing else. Each member of the test group is assigned a number and then, by random selection of the numbers, half the group is chosen to get the drug and half the placebo.
"Anyway," Chris went on, "the test of this HIV drug was a double blind one. So the fact that two names had been swapped around by Breidel — we assumed that KB referred to him — had to be of more significance than it appeared. Farrell had pointed out that, for the very reason of double-blind testing, the researchers didn’t have access to this particular part of the database at all.
"By the way, a few days later I heard that Josh had figured it out — I told you the guy was an ace on a computer. The researchers, indeed, should have no knowledge of which patient gets which treatment. But Josh figured how Breidel had been able to cross the line a little. When Breidel had first started at Zarcopharma, because he was considered to be real smart, he was on a fast track and had been assigned to various different positions in the company for a month or so, so that he could get an idea how everything worked and fitted in to the big picture. From this period, and through some oversight, he, unlike any of the other researchers, had access to the database where the random numerical IDs of the test subjects were aligned with the patients’ true identities.
"But at the time, Farrell and Josh still didn’t understand why this should have caused such distress in Breidel as to take his life.
"Well," I said. "That undid the randomness of the test. The results of the test could be considered invalid. Basis for a lawsuit, perhaps. Maybe some bad publicity in the press for sloppy control."
Chris shrugged. "I wouldn’t think it did too much damage. If the numbers had been assigned truly randomly, it shouldn’t have made too big a difference. Yeah, from a professional standpoint he shouldn’t have done it — although I really wouldn’t give the time of day to a guy who wouldn’t cross so fuzzy a line for someone he loved."
Chris has the irrational emotions of Scorpios, so this remark didn’t give me pause at the time, but over the following days I would find myself pondering his statement and marveling at the insight it gave me into the arcane nature of my lover’s personality.
"Once again, it was Josh who figured things out. On an off-chance, he Googled the names of the two patients. Not too much came up, but enough to form a dim picture. Josh found a press release from some company about the guy who was moved off the placebo list in which it mentioned that he had graduated from Michigan Tech in 1989. Guess where Breidel got his bachelors in pharmaceutical chemistry? Michigan Tech. Guess when he graduated? 1989."
"Good circumstantial evidence," I said. "Given that we know Keith Breidel was gay, and this other person had AIDS, so we can assume he was gay, too. They both attend the same college for the same time. Pretty good chance there was a connection."
"Uh-huh," Chris agreed. "But it was the guy that Breidel moved off the test list to the control group that had a bigger significance. Josh got only one hit on Google for him, but it was significant. It was an obit from a small-town newspaper and so got a few more column inches than it would have got in, say, the Morning News. In the obit there was one significant sentence. The guy was survived by various family members, and ‘his long time partner, James Spizziri’."
"Yup. Totally unknowingly Breidel had slashed any chance Spizziri’s lover had of surviving. And in a cruel twist of Murphy’s Law, he was destined later to fall in love with Spizziri himself.
"That was what pushed Breidel over the edge."
"Oh, fuck. That has to be about the saddest thing I’ve ever heard."
"Yup." Chris kept silent for a while. He took a big sip of his wine. "If this affects us this way when we never knew Breidel, can you imagine how it hit Josh, who had placed Breidel on a pedestal?
"He turned icy. Mike, I tell you, he went into an almost military-style mindset of revenge. Quietly, as though he was telling us what he wanted for breakfast and how he would cook it, he told us how he was going to get a gun and take Hillman out in the parking lot. Farrell told me later that, on that evening in the office, he was really scared about what Josh would do. He could have understood more easily if the guy had gone ape, kicking and screaming and ripping stuff up, but instead the guy was chillingly cold, planning step-by-step how he was going to kill Hillman.
"Trying to get things back to a rational basis, Farrell suggested that they search through Hillman’s work PC for any of the files that Hillman had been using to blackmail Breidel with. Rather than be seen sitting in Hillman’s office, they carried his PC back to Farrell’s office where they would be in private. And in doing that, they unscrewed the screws holding the monitor plug into the back panel, and never bothered to screw them back in, relying on the tight fit to hold it in place.
"And so, they found nothing. But their collaborative work brought Josh back into a somewhat more rational state of mind. Having extracted a promise from him not to commit mayhem on Hillman, and needing time to think up a suitable way of proceeding, Farrell said that he and Josh would meet again on Sunday morning. They had returned the PC to Hillman’s office and, once again, had not bothered to screw the retaining screws in.
"That was why, when Neil and Graham turned up on Saturday morning, they couldn’t find the data: the switch wasn’t closed."
"But I thought he’d put them onto his memory stick?" I asked.
"Yeah. That was because when he plugged his memory stick into his work or his home PC, it came up as his E drive. On Hillman’s PC that was the case, too, when the switch was open and the second hard drive wasn’t running. That’s how it appeared on the Saturday morning when he and Graham were paying attention. But on the Friday he had been preoccupied and had not noticed that his memory stick was, in fact, the F drive and the E drive was the Hillman’s second, secret, hard drive."
"Computers are so goddammed difficult to use," I complained.
"Coming from someone who gambols through the laws of the land, that’s rich!"
"Talking of the law reminds me: what is your involvement in all this mess?"
"Well, Josh came in on the Saturday to do some more rooting around on Hillman’s PC and, much to his alarm, found the three of us deep in its innards.
"That really put a spoke in their wheels. Neil Graham and I had seen the evidence and didn’t know the significance; they knew the outcome but hadn’t seen the evidence. Once again, Josh called on Farrell to bail him out. Farrell was no happier with our involvement than Josh was, but I pointed out to him that, without me, they would have absolutely no evidence at all, and that mollified him some. So we all trooped up to Farrell’s office where we could have some privacy, and that’s when he and Josh spilled the whole story.
"But, of course, when he was finished, the big question was, what was the next step going to be? And," Chris flashed his disarming smile, "just to make you happy, Farrell did get one of the legal guys involved. They have a firm that looks after their stuff, and "
"Yeah. Ethridge, Hamilton, Stourbridge and Fraley," I said.
"I guess. Sounds kinda familiar. You know them?"
"Yeah. They sacrificed one of their pawns to get to Hillman. Lucky for them Hugh didn’t make a big stink."
"Oh, cry me a river! Hillman is lucky no one sent a hit man to get to him. Let me tell you, that Saturday night there wasn’t exactly a shortage of volunteers."
Personally I didn’t think that this was a really good alternative, but, remembering my recent pact, I kept my own counsel, and Chris continued. "As I said, Farrell discussed some of the facts with this lawyer. It seemed as though, if they could prove he had been selling the data to a competitor, they could get some sort of a case against him. But since Breidel had falsified it, the loss to Zarcopharma wasn’t that big. So that wasn’t a big cudgel to beat Hillman with. Since gay sex isn’t illegal, the blackmail charges would’ve been kinda hard to get much from, either. The thing about the switching of names in the test were even more nebulous and would probably harm Zarcopharma more with bad publicity than they could hurt Hillman for stealing them.
"Well, this didn’t get us anywhere, and after Farrell got off the phone we felt quite despondent. It had been a long day and we were hungry, so Farrell phoned for Chinese take out and we sat in his office discussing what should be done. Josh, of course, had the most to lose, and he flip-flopped between doing nothing and turning himself over to the police.
"Over the Chinese food in Farrell’s office we kicked around idea after idea. We had this big white-board, and we put up points as we discussed them. The salient facts that we highlighted were that, A, Breidel had killed himself; B, that he had been driven to it by the threat of exposure to his lover that he had made a change to an experiment that had led to his lover’s partner dying; C, that this change had had no bad intention at the time; D, we had hard evidence that Hillman had been the one responsible for the threat of exposure; and, E, that Hillman had believed his threats of exposure were sufficient to get Breidel to do things that were so against his nature, he could have reasonably supposed that Breidel would go to some extremes to avoid their disclosure. Suicide was a distinct possibility.
"And there seemed very little that could be done about bringing the guy to justice. Let me tell you, that bit, majorly." The constricting feeling in my gut began to get worse. Chris took a long sip from his wine. Staring at the glass as though in it he could see back to that night, he said, "Sometime about ten, we came up with a plan.
"On Sunday morning, Farrell and Josh went back into Breidel’s house."
"Oh, fuck!" I groaned. "What were "
Chris held up a finger. "Remember our deal? No lawyer talk!"
I shook my head and shrugged, and he continued. "Using the sheet like a hammock they moved Breidel’s body from the bedroom to the living room and slid it into a chair. The rigor had practically gone by then, so it didn’t prove too difficult. After that they washed the bed linen and re-made the bed. They wiped every surface they could possibly have touched, and, using Breidel’s vacuum cleaner, they cleaned the entire house. In removing any trace of their own visit, they also set the stage so that it would appear that whoever had killed Breidel had wanted to cover his tracks.
"When they left, they took the vacuum cleaner bag with them.
"Meanwhile, Neil, Graham and I went back to the office. We had decided that we needed to get rid of any evidence that Josh and Farrell had been into the office on Friday and Saturday, so just before we got there, I got Farrell to phone the security guard and ask him if he could produce a whole different set of reports on the numbers of people using the entrances to the building. Sure enough, just as I’d expected, as soon as the guy saw me walk in, he was thrilled. Could I make up these new reports for him like I’d done the day before? No problem, bud. So I grabbed all the CDs from him and we headed up to the offices. Didn’t take me long to burn two new CDs with Josh and Farrell’s names removed, and another fifteen minutes to make up his reports."
"But," I asked, "Wouldn’t the security guard have seen them come in?"
"Good observation. But no. I had gone through the main entrance where the guard was because Neil had to sign me in. But Farrell and Josh used a side door which was closer to the parking lot. Their entry and exit were recorded by the system, but they didn’t have to pass a real live guard."
Again, I shook my head.
"The problem was Hillman’s computer. I could get his extra hard drive out, but the switch he had rigged up had been crazy-glued to the back of the chassis. If anyone took a look at that, they would know something strange had been done there. In the end, Neil and I drove up to that little computer store on Abercorn Street that has a bunch of second-hand stuff. The guy there knows me and let us rummage through his stuff until, sure enough, we found a similar PC. With a little work back at the office we moved all the hardware from Hillman’s PC into the new chassis and it looked just like any other in the office. All that was left was for Josh to alter all the records of PC allocation to show the new serial number, and our part was done.
"On the Tuesday morning after the long weekend, Hillman came to work early as was his habit, because he would spend forty five minutes to an hour in the Zarcopharma fitness room. As always, having set his briefcase down in his office, he walked to the coffee room to get a cup of water. There was a glass in front of the plastic cups, and he picked it up and placed it next to the sink. As soon as he walked out to go to the gym, Josh slipped in and with his hands covered in latex gloves, picked up the glass. It was one of Breidel’s which Farrell had brought in earlier. Now it had Hillman’s prints on it. Once Hillman was on the exercise machine, Josh snuck into the change room and ran a screwdriver between the bristles of his brush, netting a few hairs. While he was there he noticed something and took a bit of a risk — something we hadn’t planned. He saw that Hillman had tucked his shoes under the bench in the changing room. He nabbed them and drove like crazy out to Breidel’s house. Putting on Hillman’s shoes he walked from the living-room to the front door. Then he raced back to the office and put Hillman’s shoes back under the bench.
"Once again, with the wine glass and hairs in little baggies, he headed back out to Breidel’s house. This time he called at Lowes on the way to pick up a pane for the French door. Most folk were either at work or on vacation and he got into the house unobserved, pulling plastic shopping bags over his feet to avoid leaving any prints or debris. Apparently the house was pretty rank, but he took the glass with Hillman’s prints and poured into it the stuff from the glass he’d found on the nightstand. He then dropped this glass onto the chair between Breidel’s body and the upholstery. The original glass he washed up and put back into the cabinet. Finally he took the vacuum cleaner and carefully pulled some of the hairs he’d collected onto the brushes as though they had been trapped there during the clean up.
"He didn’t bother to put the pane in the door — he figured that the house needed fresh air. In any case, it had been broken long enough for a whole lot of flies to get in, so he cracked a window open to provide a credible entry point for them should some cop decide to wonder.
"All was now set for the final scene.
"At 11:30 Farrell came down to Josh’s office and, in front of a couple of other folk, asked him if he knew where Breidel was? Apparently he had left work at lunchtime on the Thursday and hadn’t come to work since. No one could get hold of him. Some folk, Farrell said, had mentioned to him that Josh had lunch with him quite often, so he had thought maybe he knew.
"With a straight face, Josh said he had no idea, but he was just headed out to lunch, so he’d swing past Breidel’s house.
"He asked another guy, someone who knew nothing about what was going on, to go with him."
He looked at me earnestly. "And the rest you know."
I pondered over everything I’d just heard.
"Quite a story."
"How much shit am I in?" Chris asked, his tone belying any humor the words might have conveyed.
"Depends who finds out. Could be about chin high. It depends on how closed you and your cohorts can keep your mouths."
"Other than you, probably the only people that know anything are in as deep as any of the rest of us."
"Probably," I agreed. We sipped our wine and looked out the window to where the lights of the fishing trawlers glimmered on the horizon.
"So, how much shit am I in?" Chris said.
"I told you. I don’t "
"No. Not with the legal system. With you."
I looked at him, his eyes searching my face for a hint of my feelings, not a smidgen of his customary cockiness in his demeanor.
"Don’t be a dork. I’m not angry with you."
"Not even disappointed?"
"No. Do you want me to be?"
"No. No, of course not. It’s just that you’re normally this unbending, high priest of the sacrosanct canons of law."
I got up and went across and sat down on the couch next to him. Putting my arm around his shoulder I asked, "Is that how I come across?"
"Uh-huh. Pretty much."
I considered this for a while. "I guess I do. That’s because I play being a lawyer. But in real life I’m just a guy like everyone else."
"So you would have done what I did, then?" Chris asked.
I swiveled around and lay down with my head in his lap. "No. Probably not. I’m not the cowboy-geek type who believes that it’s their duty to solve any problem they find. I would have found some legal way to nail the guy."
We stayed like that for several minutes, Chris running his fingers through my hair.
"The way it worked out we needed both ways," he said eventually. "Our made-up evidence pushed the jerk only so far. We had thought it would be water-tight and the cops would nail him, but we hadn’t counted on your buddy, Hugh. We had to get a lawyer to go in and deliver the coup de grace."
"Right. Zarcopharma does all their legal business through his firm."
"What did he say to Hillman?"
"Threatened to hit him with some Federal Industrial Espionage suit. Something like EAA."
"EEA Probably. Economic Espionage Act. Everyone thinks of Cerynitis as an American Company, but it’s headquartered in Canada. That’s the act I would have used. It carries a lot of clout and lets the courts decide what gets disclosed in order to prevent the secrets from being further opened up to competitors."
"Sounds right. Mentioned that they were looking at Hillman’s father, too."
"But the father wasn’t involved, was he?"
"Not really. He hadn’t supplied, didn’t have any knowledge, of the data that Breidel was sending Cerynitis. But back in ’92 or whenever, he had come across the switch in the names in the test. He didn’t know what was going on, whether it was some big cover up or what, so he took copies of the two files and kept them on a diskette. Hillman junior must have come across them, or Hillman senior told him about them. My guess is that junior Googled the names just like Josh did and found out he had the mother lode.
"The father knew nothing about this. The lawyer thing was just a ruse to pressure the guy."
"Well then it seemed that Hugh was right — Lyman’s visit had been the straw that broke Hillman’s resolve. But you told him it wasn’t. Was that just to stop him digging further?"
"Partly. But I still believe Hillman thought he could wriggle out of things. I think for a time there he thought he could destroy the evidence. See, the DA had sent Hugh a copy of the copy they had made of Hillman’s PC. Hillman probably asked about it and Hugh brought it up on some computer or other and Hillman saw it was a copy of his C drive — the one that was legit. Maybe he asked Hugh if that was all the DA had, and Hugh said yes. So Hillman thought that they had merely put in some CDs and copied his C drive and had not seen the E drive, the secret disk. So he gets a buddy to go and steal it. The buddy gets caught before Hillman gets to see the PC. But Hugh then calls Hillman in and goes ape. Hillman comes up with the stupid excuse of someone planting files on his PC. At that point, my guess is that Hugh said something like ‘The cops popped your hard drive out and kept it as evidence. The drive in that PC is a copy.’ That’s when Hillman knew that someone else — someone other than the cops — had his evidence and was very likely going to use it against him. Remember Hugh telling us about him saying to beware of the tree falling on him? He knew he was screwed.
"Actually, we — that’s Josh and I, anyway — think the buddy got only half of what he came for. When, on that first Saturday, we’d been sitting in Hillman’s office while Josh and Farrell were looking at Hillman’s PC, I had happened to look up and noticed that one of the ceiling panels had fingerprints on it. Nothing obvious, I saw them only because the light reflected off them in a certain way from where I was sitting. I didn’t think much about it at the time, but late that night when we were getting ready to go, I went back there to get my helmet. Neil needed to take a leak, so while Graham and I waited, I remembered the fingerprints. I got Graham to hold the chair and I pushed the tile up. I couldn’t see anything at first, but when I felt behind the air conditioning duct, I found two plastic boxes, Tupperware kind of things, and in them was just over eighty grand."
"Holy cow!" I said. "The payout for the stolen data?"
"That’s what we figured."
"What did you do with it?"
"Gave it to Farrell It was Zarco’s data. It took him over a month to get it all back into their accounts without raising a stink. Remember Hugh asking how Spizziri could get a new truck and a pool? That’s where the money came from. Zarco came up with some story about pension fund or something and gave it to him. Somehow we felt he was the only one who could touch it without being dirtied."
We lapsed into silence again. It was amazing, I thought, how deep inside each of us there is some innate desire for justice whether it is codified or not. I was jerked out of my contemplations by Chris giving a sharp pull on a couple of my chest hairs.
"C’mon. Say it. I know what you’re thinking."
"That we were righteously indignant about the blackmail, but we resorted to it ourselves to get Hillman."
I laughed as I rubbed the smarting skin. "No, I wasn’t thinking that. I’ve never actually cottoned to that line of logic. I mean we do it all the time. We control forest fires by lighting our own. We fight diseases by introducing small doses into the body. Sometimes it is the best or only way of dealing with a situation."
The room was quiet again as I lay there on his lap, a comfortable warmth running through my body.
"What did you guys do with the evidence?" I asked at last. "The letters, the hard drive."
"I dismantled the hard drive and beat seven shades of shit out of the disk. The letters we shredded and burned. We spent a long time discussing the note from Breidel to his Marine, but in the end we voted to burn it. Seemed like no good to anyone could come from letting him have it. In fact we wished we hadn’t seen it either. Like the song says, ‘Wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then’."
In the stillness I could hear the waves on the beach as the tide came in, scouring the sand with that long, sighing sound as the it pushed the unwilling grains back onto the shore, obliterating any evidence of previous existence.
"So," Chris said, stretching out next to me, "I told you all about my trip to Yorkshire. Seems like I haven’t heard all that much about your lunch with that Marine guy. Seemed like a hot guy in those JPEGs."
The memory of the mind-bruising Japanese water torture of having to look at about two hundred pictures of pistons, black riveted steel, oil-covered rods that in some abstruse way operated valves, and of the steam locomotives to which they belonged that Chris had subjected me to, transmuted into the recollection of the afternoon spent on a sunny deck discussing the war, politics and the law with the dark-haired man with the five o’clock shadow. As the sun had climbed it had been natural to remove our shirts. From sitting around for a while it had been necessary to occasionally rearrange the crotch. Had not the image of an oil- and coal-stained guy in ripped jeans about three thousand miles away kept floating into my mind, who could say how the afternoon would have ended? As it was, when I stood next to my Audi ready to leave, the tanned face came within inches of mine and the scents of perspiration mingled with aftershave triggered a band of rebellious hormones to surge into my chest, up my neck, and there, separating, to assault numerous unwary synapses. With usurped authority they commanded my arms to reach out, to touch the tight, tanned skin that stretched over the jaw. But the insurrection lasted a bare moment, before my brain forcibly took back control. Mumbling a confused good bye, I slid into my car and drove off without daring to look in the mirror.
"Well?" Chris asked.
"Not much to tell," I answered, recalled to the present. "We ate some burgers and we talked a bit about his life in the Marines. Nothing exciting."
Chris leaned forward and pulled at the denim on the front of my jeans stretching it tight, displaying the evidence of my mendacity. "Oh my God, you are such a bad liar, you know that?"
Comments and fair criticism can be emailed to Horatio Nimier Horatio_Nimier@Hotmail.com
Flames and stupid or vapid emails get deleted.
Getting an idea for a story is not really hard: anyone can easily come up with, as Stephen King quotes Richard Adams,‘half a dozen, three good, two a-country fair, and one as fine as paint.’ Even getting the narrative down in writing is not too difficult if one is prepared to put some time and effort into it. That takes care of four fifths of the work. But that eighty percent does not get the emails flowing in, the ones that say how much a reader enjoyed the tale. The final stretch, the most laborious part, the real ball-buster, is getting from there to the finished story. It is almost impossible for the writer to do this by himself or herself. The reason is simple: in their minds they have an image of what the finished product should look like, and in reading and re-reading the words, their minds mentally skim over the errors, supplanting them and the inconsistencies with what they believe ought to lie there. And so, the development stalls, or would stall if it were not for the editors. They get this draft, generally with little or no preamble so as not to place any advantage on them that a reader would not have, and they give up their time to find the mistakes, the non sequiturs, the scenes that do not fit in with what went on before or what will follow after. They read deliberately to discern the behavior or language that is out of context, the facts that are just plain wrong. They document all this and pass it back, and they are then prepared to enter discussion about their points of view with an author who harbors the suspicion that they think his baby is ugly.
So when, in the quiet of the night, you reach the end of the story, and you pour for yourself another glass of Chianti, dry Oloroso, or antique Tawny to accompany your contemplation of the plot, the characters and the ruses, raise that glass in silent tribute to the editors. Their sterling work contributed vastly to your enjoyment.
For this chapter, my sincere thanks go out to Tim Mead, Drew Hunt and Bill. Guys, I drink to your coffins. May they be made from hundred year old oak of a tree which I shall plant tomorrow.
© Copyright 2007 Horatio Nimier